Midway through the 2013 Morgan Spurlock–directed boy band documentary This is Us, One Directioners Harry Styles and Liam Payne are discussing an early, minor conflict with their then-bandmate Zayn Malik. “There was a serious conversation about kicking Zayn out of the band!” Payne laughs.
Styles’ response is delivered in his typically laconic drawl. “Imagine,” he says. “Niall [would] have to be the mysterious one.”
Boy bands are famous for categorizing their members into easily digestible pre-fab Types: Mysterious and Bad joined by Shy, Sweet, Hot and Mature, a veritable dwarf-crew specifically engineered to inspire teenage girls to believe they could be the boys’ one true Snow White. Styles’ observation about the parts he and his fellow Directions play is a sly joke: Niall Horan is an affable Irish bottle-blond best known among fans for his love of golf and Barack Obama, while Malik’s shyness (he’s since written about having such bad anxiety while in the band that he developed an eating disorder) was easy to read as deliberate inscrutability. He’s mysterious! everyone thought.
Malik shed a little of that mystery when he released a coffee table book with Delacorte last week, a minimalist tome entitled ZAYN, in which he gives his side of the story about his time in One Direction, and the turbulent year since he left. Because though in 2013 it seemed absurd to imagine One Direction without Zayn, it’s now the band’s reality: Zayn quit and left abruptly, mid-tour, in March of 2015, and a year later released a solo album called Mind of Mine. The lead single, “Pillow Talk,” offered a clear vision for how Malik wanted to be received as an independent artist: The song is mellow, R&B-inflected and insistently, sort of exhaustingly sexy. Malik croons about “fucking and fighting” in a video that features naked women spreading their legs to reveal flowers blossoming between them. By most accounts, it was a very, “I’m in art school now and I do what I WANT, MOM” moment.
Compare that to our un-mysterious man Niall Horan’s first solo single, which he released nine months into the band’s “indefinite hiatus” from recording and performing together. “This Town” is as wholesomely sweet as “Pillow Talk” is aggressively sexy — a guitar-backed ballad that has Horan crooning his eternal allegiance to a childhood love. The video is equally unadorned — shot in black and white, like “Pillow Talk,” but with a softness that suggests vintage romance. “This Town” is a single-take shot of Horan in a recording studio: a humble man at his humble work.
The transition from boy band heart-throb to stand-alone solo artist is a tough one, and the road between the two is littered with generations of carefully coiffed corpses: Joey McIntyre and JC Chasez and Nick Carter and Joe Jonas, to name just a few. The ones who navigate it successfully tend to do so by differentiating themselves effectively from their teen-dream selves: Justin Timberlake’s savviest post-N’SYNC move was to team up with Pharrell and Timbaland to produce a stripped-down hip hop-influenced album that was much cooler and sexier than his previous work, while Joe’s brother, Nick Jonas, just went sexy, full stop.
For Malik, though, the possibilities offered by going solo and developing his own voice and image are complicated by the expectations race puts on him — he’s of mixed heritage, born to an Irish mother and a Pakistani father. He was also raised Muslim, and still identifies with the faith, though he understandably doesn’t discuss his personal practice of it much. When he was in One Direction, a Huffington Post piece about ISIS was illustrated with a picture of his face; the blowback when he tweeted #freepalestine was intense, marked by personal, violent threats.
Said Timberlake of his debut solo single, “Like I Love You”: “Nobody’s ever heard anything like that before … a white boy singing this kind of music.” Race rendered Timberlake’s new direction novel, a bold creative experiment, where it makes Malik’s move toward R&B all too easy to read as just another brown boy making brown music, acting like a sexed-up rebel because of course he is.
That was certainly the image One Direction created for him: One of the documents that came out of the 2015 Sony hack was a marketing graphic that describes his proposed personality as that of a “poser, player, dark horse” — but don’t worry, ladies, he’s “vulnerable,” too. Horan, meanwhile, is “cute, giggly, musical, sweet”; Payne “caring, driven, kind, sensible”; and Styles “witty, cheeky, beautiful, adorably ‘slow.’” Fans were quick to point out that it didn’t seem like a coincidence that the only darker-skinned guy in the band was branded as the dark horse. White boys grow up and into sex and edge, where brown ones have it projected onto them; the only decision they get to make is whether they want to try to reject it, or claim it for their own.
Even if Malik had wanted to follow the kind of path Horan seems to be taking — selling himself as nice, relatable and regular, doing goofy James Corden videos and homey Twitter chats — there’s no guarantee that the option would have been available to him. Just as there’s little precedent for such a legibly non-white boy band member, there’s not much for one making a career beyond the band like he had when he was in it: getting the public to accept him as the safe sweetheart he was when he was surrounding himself with all of the trappings of whiteness. And Malik has seen enough of the world and the industry at work to know it.
This is not to say that he is consciously playing into stereotypes by making the music he’s making now, or necessarily bowing to industry pressure. He’s also been consistently vocal since leaving One Direction about his feeling that the music they made wasn’t authentic to him and his tastes. He cites the Notorious B.I.G., Prince, Bob Marley, Frank Ocean and Gregory Isaacs as inspirations for Mind of Mine; One Direction’s last few albums, which features plenty of his bandmates’ songwriting, garnered comparisons to Coldplay, The Beatles and Fleetwood Mac. Being in One Direction was a double bind for Malik: he was constantly, inevitably marked as stand-out not-same while also being asked to stay silent about that difference, to look and act different without ever being able to speak about the source of that difference, or use it to fuel his creative work.
The thing about having to claim cultural authenticity, though, is that someone is almost always going to step up and say you don’t have the right to make that claim. Horan gets to make the music he makes without much conversation: It’s safe and familiar to watch a white boy wear a sweater, cultivate a little scruff and sing us sweet songs about love and trust. He doesn’t have to be Justin Timberlake or Nick Jonas, because there are so many ways to be a white man! Malik, in contrast, was recently embroiled in a Twitter feud over his artistic interactions with black culture when rapper Azealia Banks alleged that he’d copied imagery she’d previously used for his “Pillow Talk” video — and, when he responded that he hadn’t, quickly escalated to claiming he was “a white boy pretending to be black,” a “sand n—— who emulates white boys’ renditions of black male hood.” Banks eventually apologized for her remarks.
It’s an unwinnable game, the play of race and masculinity on an international stage: Ultimately, trying to figure out how to perform the complicated tangle of personal identity as a consumable persona always ends up reductive both in the doing and the dissecting. Perhaps the best indication of how Malik is working to figure out his place in the world comes in the interlude track Intermission: “Flower” on Mind of Mine, where he drops the focus on sex and drugs, the tight hold on certain markers of his adulthood, and sings in his father’s native Urdu.
Malik writes about recording the song in ZAYN: “Man, I know if Dad was to hear me sing like this,” he tells his producer, Malay, “it would mean everything.” The lyrics are tender: “Until the flower of this love has blossomed / This heart won’t be at peace / Give me your heart.” The style of the song is inspired by Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, a Pakistani musician whom Malik loved growing up. The beauty of his voice singing it cuts through the rest of his bluster, and serves as a reminder that underneath his public performance there is so much personal history: a single human boy trying to navigate the complexities of race and sex, persona and performance, trying to grow up in public — doing the difficult work of trying to figure out how to grow up at all.