Zayn Malik doesn’t like boxes. Not the box of a moody R&B archetype. Not the box that hemmed him in as a de facto mouthpiece for the Muslim community. Certainly not the creatively restrictive box he was forced to escape as an amiable cookie cutter boy bander in One Direction. “People need to get rid of boxes. They just create divides between us. They don’t do us well,” says the 25-year-old, garrulous, utterly at ease, and almost unshackled—as if he’s shed the outer layer of his pop automaton shell to let his personality shine.
It’s been almost three years since the story of Malik’s Grand Guignol exit was firmly etched into the ruins of popular culture: after a concert in Hong Kong in 2015, Malik decided to leave the band. Pelted by rumours about his break-up with Little Mix singer Perrie Edwards and being creatively dissatisfied with 1D, the pressure to showboat as a happy-go-lucky pop tart grew unbearable. “I think it was down to the kind of music I was singing. I never really felt like I was being honest,” he says. That year, he flew back to his hometown, Bradford, in the north of England, recuperated with a bowl of his mum’s famous curry, and began hatching a plan to break out of the box.
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In 2016, after a stint of soul-searching—which included, as per a statement, wanting to be a “normal 22-year-old”—he moved to Los Angeles, tracked down Frank Ocean’s producer, Malay, and crafted one of the most compelling, unexpected R&B albums, Mind Of Mine, this side of Channel Orange [Ocean’s 2012 debut]. Now, finally anxiety-free, he is ready to barrel headlong into his solo career. “I feel [like I’m] in the control seat, like I’m doing my thing,” he says. “I’m enjoying what I’m doing; so, it’s a bit different.”
Between his Los Angeles garage, where he’s built a recording space, and a studio in Pennsylvania, Malik has been putting the finishing touches to his latest album for a few months. “I try not to listen to chart music [while recording],” he says, talking about the inspiration behind this new record. “But I’m always inspired by old music that I still love from being a kid—R Kelly, Usher, Chris Brown. A lot of people from my dad’s generation... a lot of Donell Jones.”
For his sophomore effort, Malik has recorded a staggering 87 songs that he must whittle down to a digestible 10, or so. “I tried to pick what I think is the most me, the most authentic.” What that really means is that Malik, one of the most clandestine musicians of the millennium, will have to edge even closer to being completely open, vulnerable—a far departure from his days with One Direction, when he rarely chimed in during group interviews. “I didn’t really know how to place myself in a public environment. I was always on edge.” Today, it’s clear he’s shed that reserve.
This also means that—following on from the positive response he received for his Urdu track, ‘Flower’—he will again sing in Urdu. It reflects a level of comfort with bringing this part of his heritage—his stay-at-home dad is British-Pakistani—into his music. “There’s definitely a lot of Urdu; some nice qawwali sounds. There might even be some bhangra vibes,” says Malik, before listing the other highlights: “I have worked with AR Rahman on one song. It was interesting, because [my team] was talking to him first, saying, ‘Bollywood, Bollywood...’ Then he came on Skype, and said, ‘There are a thousand different types of Bollywood. What do you mean?’ I had to explain we wanted a more qawwali, sufi kind of sound, and he got it straight away.” The resulting track is just one part of a deeper exploration of his roots. Malik has recently also recorded a song for a Bollywood film. “It’s one of the first songs I’ve sung in full Hindi, so it’s going to be cool to see what the response to that is.”
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The territory isn’t unfamiliar to Malik. He grew up on a diet of Amitabh Bachchan and Aamir Khan, and will recommend Shah Rukh Khan’s Devdas (2002) to you, any chance he gets. “Before I can even remember... [Bollywood films were] on the TV,” he says. “Bollywood is so impeccable. If you ever get a chance to watch a good Bollywood movie, watch Devdas! Have you seen Devdas? It’s got Shah Rukh Khan in it. You know who Shah Rukh Khan is?” Thanks to one specific record- breaking selfie, the world knows he does.
Malik and Khan met in November 2015 at the Asian Awards in London. Their selfie, posted to Khan’s Twitter, reportedly received the highest number of retweets of all time from an Indian account. “I personally wasn’t a huge fan until I met him. I realised how humble he is. Really showed a different side to him. He always came across as slightly arrogant in the movies to me, but when I met him in real life, he was so nice. He just completely changed my opinion of him.”
For now, Malik’s gaze is trained on what lies ahead, with no time for what he calls “negative shit”—be it the rumours that mired his exit from 1D (that he no longer cared about his fans or making music), or the “macho world of male aggression” he had to deal with, as a cog in the machinations of pop, an aspect he addressed in his book, Zayn (Penguin Random House, 2016).
Determined that his music embrace all facets of his identity, Malik keeps himself surrounded by “strong women”, like his mother, a halal chef at a primary school. “If you want a peaceful and intelligent solution to a problem, get a woman to solve it. I’m very lucky to have three sisters, five aunts, and my mum. They supported everything I wanted to do. With my father, he didn’t really get theatre studies too much, and didn’t ever come and see me at performances. But he’s slowly starting to get into it now that he sees my success. I always felt like women were always behind me no matter what I was doing. They just like me.” He’s getting on quite well with one in particular—model-girlfriend Gigi Hadid, who “keeps him balanced”, with the odd fashion lesson thrown in. “I didn’t even know who Karl Lagerfeld was; Gigi had to explain to me his prominence,” he smirks.
To some, Zayn Malik represents a resurgent pop icon; a pin-up that cuts a divergent path through the flavourless music that dominates the charts. To others, he is the poster boy for an ultra-modern culture clash, marrying influences from the East and West through the power of unshakeable, dance floor tunes. It’s a rare space to occupy—to be able to introduce a Western audience to a world they never before imagined, as well as represent Asian fans—and a lot of power to wield for one young star, but he’s wickedly capable. Just don’t box him in.
When we couldn't take our eyes off our cover star:
Photographs: Ricardo Abrahao, Fashion editor: Rahul Vijay, Styling: Jason Rembert, Hair and Make-up: Larry King/Streeters, Tattoos: Megan Massacre/Studio Grit in Glory, Production: Isabel Scharenberg, Assisted by: Divya Gursahani, Kirsten Mcgovern and Maurice Diallo (styling), Location courtesy: Lotte New York Palace, New York.