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Young, Hot, and SOLO: The Surprising Success of Zayn Malik

By Entertainment

illustration by Alex Kostiw

illustration by Alex Kostiw

Quimby’s bookstore on North Avenue is home to thousands of zines, from earnest confessions to Xeroxed reviews of local punk shows. Yet if I had to pick a zine that has a particularly special place in my heart, I’d have to go with “SOLO” a limited edition erotic Zayn Malik fanzine, with drawings risographed on pastel paper depicting the former One Direction member … uh … going solo. Much like One Direction as a musical entity, this zine effortlessly straddles the line between campy and cringe-worthy, playing on the raunchy sexual undertones that have always existed within seemingly innocuous boy band culture.

When Malik left One Direction in 2015, fans of the boy band were shocked. If any member of One Direction was supposed to break free for a Justin Timberlake-style solo career, it was Harry Styles.  However, on March 25 Malik will release his first solo project with RCA records, “Mind of Mine,” and if the first two singles are any indication of his musical prowess, his solo career is off to a fantastic start.

Last November, Malik graced the cover of FADER with orange juice dribbling suggestively down his chin. In the subsequent interview, Malik explained his decision to distance himself from his former band mates stating, “If I would sing a hook or a verse slightly R&B, or slightly myself, it would always be recorded 50 times until there was a straight version that was pop, generic as fuck, so they could use that version. Whenever I would suggest something, it was like it didn’t fit us… I wasn’t 100 percent behind the music. It wasn’t me.”

Now that the other four members of One Direction are on a brief hiatus, it’s easy to see how confining the archetypes of the boy band could have been for any creative individual. Still, after watching countless child stars try and fail to abandon their adolescent fame for a more “mature” spot in the music industry, I was wary of  Malik’s ability to infiltrate the Top 40 charts as a serious contender.

Enter “Pillowtalk:” the syrupy, sensual first single from Malik, which was reportedly penned as an ode to his current partner, supermodel and “Real Housewives of Beverly Hills” progeny Gigi Hadid. The beat of the song oozes sexuality as the Malik croons, “In the bed all day/ bed all day/ fucking in and fighting on/ it’s a paradise/ and it’s a war zone.” It is, quite literally, a hot track — calling on classic R&B rhythms while allowing Malik to demonstrate his talent as a vocalist. He handles the hooks and the high notes with ease. If One Direction was Malik’s Destiny’s Child, then “Pillowtalk” is his “Rocket.” It’s a borderline triumphant showcase of a raw, animal, sexuality that Malik must have been hiding all along beneath his squeaky-clean boy band exterior. As a track, the appeal reaches far beyond fans of One Direction in a way that’s almost seamless.

Rapper Lil Wayne appears on the remix, and though the partnership may seem bizarre, it might be an attempt to dispel any rumored tension between the two. The album cover for “Mind of Mine” features a picture of Malik as a child smiling sunnily, though his wrists and hands are covered in tattoos. It draws several visual parallels to the album covers for Lil Wayne’s “Tha Carter” albums, which feature photos of young Lil Wayne with his current face tattoos. Some fans of the rapper were quick to accuse Malik of copying Lil Wayne. Little did they know their aggravation would lead to a musical partnership that’s so strange it’s actually compelling. The remix features a slightly amplified bass with Lil Wayne rapping over the track. It also allows Malik to drop lyrical gems like, “You would have told me no/ you would have told me yes/ would have stayed the night/ then we’d probably have sex.”

By contrast, One Direction was always lyrically reluctant to broach the topic of sex. Instead, they stuck to the power of suggestion. Take, for example, 2013’s “Kiss You,” wherein the chorus entices, “If you don’t wanna take it slow/ and you just wanna take me home/ baby say, ‘yeah, yeah, yeah’/ and let me kiss you.”  Clearly, a morning after is implied (the album was also titled “Take Me Home”), but it’s never stated outright. In the music video for the track, Malik appears fresh-faced and youthful, wearing a leather jacket and zooming around on a motorcycle with his band mate Harry Styles hitching a ride. He exudes just the right amount of energy, coupled with the slightest suggestion of a bad boy archetype as hinted by his leather jacket. He exists as an ideal candidate to project the very first inklings of a crush onto, not as generic as Menudo yet not dangerous enough to be a cause of concern for the parents of any young fans.

The music video for “Pillowtalk,” however, is a completely different story. The video features Malik and Hadid in various close proximities, Hadid crying tears of blood, and several “presumed female legs opening to reveal various flowers” shots that would make Georgia O’Keeffe proud. Visually, it reads as a slightly painful attempt for Malik to assert himself as both #artsy and as an adult, but the greatness of “Pillowtalk” as a track makes up for any strained visual metaphors.

On March 11, Malik released his second single, “Like I Would.” It’s significantly more upbeat, with a bass line that’s reminiscent of early ‘90s club remixes. It’s more danceable than the slow burn of “Pillowtalk” and the chorus is infectiously catchy. The hook, “He don’t know your body/ he won’t do you right/ he won’t love you like I would/ love you like I would” is instant ear candy. It’s musically complex while still being accessible — a verifiable Top 40 dream.

Much like seeing Malik’s risographed pastel washboard abs next to a zine about self-care, the viability of his solo career took me by surprise — but hey, not all surprises are bad.

Zayn Malik’s debut solo album “Mind of Mine” is out March 25 via RCA records. You can buy the “SOLO” zine online at: http://teenwitch.bigcartel.com/product/solo-zine

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