There’s Something About Malik

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Kate Giff takes a look at the phenomenon of the male solo artist and asks what it takes to make a successful breakaway act.

This week, the name’s Zayn; just-Zayn released the second single from his upcoming album Mind Of Mine. His career trajectory follows the same route as many young men before him, who left wildly successful groups to become a fully-fledged solo artist. While these breakout stars often attribute their exit to a need for creative freedom, it seems that all in all, they follow a remarkably similar path. While Zayn seems hell-bent on assuring us that he is more original than his former One Direction bandmates (the title of his album labouring the point somewhat), his choices seem to closely resemble the pop-superstars that predate him.

If you’re a stoic Indie Cindy who likes to pretend The X Factor doesn’t exist and therefore don’t know who I’m talking about, Zayn Malik was the “Mysterious One” from pop group extraordinaire One Direction. That was, until 25th March last year (also coincidentally the date of the album release this year) when he left them to be a “normal 22 year old”. That lasted all of two minutes, and less than a year later, his debut single Pillowtalk was Number 1 in over sixty countries. Now the band are on a “hiatus”, and everyone (meaning me) is waiting for Harry Styles to release his own solo material, to see whether he or Malik will become “The Robbie”.  This phrase, along with “The Justin”, is now a part of our pop-discourse, referring of course to Robbie Williams and Justin Timberlake. Williams left Take That and went on to be one of the biggest stars of the 2000s, with seven solo albums going to Number 1; Timberlake left *NSYNC to become one of the hottest pop stars on the planet, marrying a movie star and becoming a Hollywood favourite himself. Now Zayn has done the same, and seems on course to continuing this legacy.  So, how do they do it?

It seems an easy first step is to harness their sexuality in what seems to be an attempt to establish their masculinity after being in the typically female-saturated world of the boyband. For Zayn, his re-branding as a sexual being was more low key than some gold pants; those who were ready to look past Harry Styles’ dimples mostly admitted that Malik was the best looking in One Direction, and this easily translated into the sexiest when it was combined with his title as “The Mysterious One”.  While this was problematic in itself (in that it is a short step from ‘mysterious’ to ‘exotic’), it also left Malik a lot to play with as soon as he went solo. And play with it he did; after months of black and white shirtless selfies, cigarette usually hanging from his lips, and a newly acquired single status, he finally released a song that was supposed to represent the new him. And it seems that the new him was ready to fully embrace the part of the sexy popstar.

His first track Pillowtalk is centered around sex and the morning after, revolving around the idea of being “in bed all day, fucking and fighting on”. Interestingly, it was widely acknowledged that the only real difference between Pillowtalk and a One Direction song was his ability to swear, and even that had to go in the radio edit.  To go even further, therefore, he recently featured on a remix of everybody’s favourite criminal Chris Brown’s track Back To Sleep, where he goes further than he ever has before:

“So baby when you’re feeling like a woman in the sheets,
Somebody splitting your knees, don’t worry that’s me.”

For Zayn, this seems to be his way of transitioning into the world of R&B. Collaborating with Brown and other participant Usher, Malik is gaining the accreditation he’s looking for, after his relentless assurance that R&B is who he is and what he’s always been about. Fans knew that his ideas weren’t being taken seriously due to the fact that he had so few writing credits on One Direction’s fourth album Four, despite writing a lot. In his first solo interview, he went further: “If I would sing a hook or a verse slightly R&B, or slightly myself, it would always be recorded fifty times until there was a straight version that was pop, generic as fuck, so they could use that version,” which sounds remarkably similar to this quote from the Huffington Post about Robbie Williams: “According to the documentary For The Record, Robbie had been unhappy with his musical ideas not being taken seriously by lead singer Garry Barlow and Nigel Martin-Smith, because his desire to explore hip hop and rap conflicted with the band’s usual ballads.”

While it might seem completely new to a young fan, before Zayn had ever picked up a microphone, Justin Timberlake embraced R&B and his get-out-of-*NSYNC-free- card, turning to the likes of Timbaland and Pharrell to do so. In some instances, this led to nothing short of pop genius in the form of Senorita, Cry Me a River and Like I Love You, which tread the line between pop and R&B beautifully, much like Pillowtalk. Again, he employed the classic R&B method of singing about sex, although on his first album, Justified, it’s not as lyrical as even Zayn’s crude descriptions:

Oh no (Girl)
Is that your hands (your hands) rubbing on me?
If so (Girl)
If that’s your hands (your hands) then tell me what you got for me

In Robbie’s case, this was slightly different, as Take That worked hard on their sex appeal as a five-piece (watch Relight My Fire video if you don’t believe me), so he had a nice platform to work from. However, thanks to some very small speedos in his video for Rock DJ, he took it to the next level, embracing his slightly slimy sex appeal with his tattoos and bad boy behaviour. Robbie also chose to catapult himself into another genre, but chose Britpop rather than R&B. His debut solo album, Life Thru A Lens, attempts to capture the vocals of Oasis with the tone of The Cure, sometimes channelling the edgier instrumentals of people like Beck (such as on South Of The Border).

All of these, shockingly, didn’t land him much chart success until he came out with Angels.  This song was the saving grace of the whole record, eventually taking it to Number 1 after a long climb. Eventually, his strange friendship with Noel Gallagher ended not-so-amicably, and he subsequently focussed on the poppier side of his music for the rest of his solo career, before eventually rejoining Take That. Timberlake fared somewhat better, with a cracking follow up album Future Sex/Love Sounds that built on his R&B inspiration as well as his love for coitus. It seems his career is something Zayn would be happy with for himself, including massive collaborations from Madonna to Jay Z.

It seems, therefore, that all you need to become a solo star more popular than your band is a large dose of sex appeal, a song or two about intercourse, an album title that says something profound about your individuality, and a new genre to experiment with. So will Zayn’s edgy new sound propel him into the company of Robbie and Justin, or will Harry Styles’ solo album dwarf him into the Gary Barlow of the group?  Judging by the extraordinary success of Pillowtalk, it seems he has a good shot at making it as an R&B artist, although his subsequent single iT’s YoU (yes, it’s really spelt like that) has done less well.

All in all, I think there is something about Malik – whether it stems from his apparent contempt for anything he did with One Direction, or his public fights with people we thought were his friends (he called Naughty Boy a “fat fuck” when everybody thought they were working together on the new record), or the nicer side of him like the one we saw when he bought his mum and sisters a house with his earnings. These things go to show that he knows how to keep himself in the limelight. And so, while he continues dating the biggest supermodel of the moment and smoking a lot of creative marijuana, the rest of us can only wait and see if Mind Of Mine is worth Zayn living his life through a lens, and whether or not, in the end, Malik can prove himself Justified.