The Week In Pop

Here Comes Zayn Malik

Zayn Malik is looking more and more like our next Justin Timberlake. Maybe not yet, but the 22-year-old Englishman of Pakistani lineage has seized the pole position from his former One Direction bandmates, their chart nemesis Justin Bieber, and fellow boy band refugee Nick Jonas, all of whom are attempting a leap from teeny-bopping to grown-ass pop stardom. It’s a treacherous transition, one that hasn’t been satisfyingly completed since Timberlake struck out on his own from NSYNC. But if anybody seems primed to pull it off, it’s Malik.

Dogged by rumors of substance abuse and allegations that he cheated on his then-fiancée, Malik left 1D without much explanation back in March, saying he wanted “to be a normal 22-year-old who is able to relax and have some private time out of the spotlight.” Since then he’s stayed off the radar as promised, recording in Los Angeles and holed up at his London area home with a crossbow, some spraypaint, and a collection of off-road vehicles. But this week he came roaring back in the form of a Fader cover story that explained why he left One Direction and what he’s been up to in the interim.

Malik’s mere presence on the Fader cover means something. There’s a reason he chose to come back that way rather than, say, a 60 Minutes segment or a Rolling Stone cover story or a blowout New York Times Sunday Magazine feature. The Fader is a publication dedicated to the production and promotion of urban cool, one that had cultural monoliths Drake and Rihanna on its cover last issue. Malik has long espoused his eclectic taste, his devotion to hip-hop and R&B, his love for the music of the ’90s. That’s the kind of artist he wants to be — an icon on the cutting edge — and among his peers, he seems most capable of stepping into that role. Unlike Bieber, he’s self-evidently adult. Unlike the other 1D guys, he’s hip. (I’m still laughing about this tweet eight months later.) And as much as I like Jonas, he often seems like he’s trying to force B-list songs into an A-list mold.

Now, we’re purely talking potential here because Malik hasn’t actually released a single yet. But based on the sonic snippets that have emerged so far and the information he shared in the Fader feature, that potential is extremely high. In the article, Malik expressed frustration that he wasn’t allowed to experiment creatively in One Direction: “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.” He added that although he enjoyed the music he made with 1D, it’s not something he’d listen to by choice: “Would you listen to One Direction, sat at a party with your girl? I wouldn’t. To me, that’s not an insult, that’s me as a 22-year-old man.”

Malik quickly got to work rectifying that lack of edge and agency. He’d already been pursuing his own vision on the side, and days after he split from 1D, “La La La” producer Naughty Boy leaked a year-old acoustic demo they’d created together called “I Won’t Mind.” A few months later, an R&B reworking of Rae Sremmurd’s “No Type” also made its way online. Both tracks freed Malik up from the squeaky-clean pop-rock and crystalline vocals of One Direction, letting him flex his coarse yet fluid voice in more artful environments. And although Malik later very publicly disassociated himself from “fat joke” Naughty Boy, their material together suggested a positive trajectory.

Even more promisingly, since then Malik has found a close musical kinship with James “Malay” Ho, an LA producer who works closely with Frank Ocean, one of Malik’s primary inspirations. Malik and Malay have been recording in hotel rooms and homes and on camping trips, collecting music for a solo debut album expected early next year. Thus far the only music they’ve shared from those sessions is the instrumental for “Befour,” which appears in the background of a new Fader promo video. It’s a sleek, twilight-tinted track along the lines of the xx’s “Intro,” setting a clean, reverby guitar riff against a cinematic backdrop marked by blasts of noise and keyboard drone. I can’t wait to hear it with vocals.

Malik is working from a familiar script, making a pointed break from kid stuff in favor of mature, forward-thinking sounds. But as with his tenure in 1D, he’s the first of his kind to be in this position. The world has never seen a young Muslim pop star before, one who tweets “Eid Mubarak” and “#FreePalestine” and publicly wrestles with his faith the way figures like Kanye West and Kendrick Lamar wrestle with Christianity. In doing so, Malik has become a source of inspiration and controversy, cutting a path away from both traditional Islam and the extremism that haunts the public perception.

Being brown and Muslim surely affected Malik’s role in 1D, where he was the “bad boy” while Harry Styles became the group’s de facto leader. And while any boy band alum looking to transcend his past will face scrutiny from the adults of the world, whatever challenges a blue-eyed, blonde-haired Memphis kid like Timberlake faces are compounded for Malik. On the other hand, Malik’s unique status makes him one of pop’s most intriguing figures, and he isn’t exactly shying away from his reputation as a bad boy. The guy has a chance to become not just the next Timberlake or even the next Bobby Brown, but an entirely new kind of pop sensation. Whether or not he succeeds, watching him try is going to be one of 2016’s most fascinating storylines.

Correction: This post originally indicated that Malik created the “I Won’t Mind” demo after leaving One Direction.

Adele
CREDIT: Kevin Mazur/Getty Images

CHART WATCH

Adele’s 25 is out tomorrow, and Stereogum will have a lot more to say about the album then. So will the rest of the world, probably: 25 will almost certainly be the best selling album of 2015 even though it’s coming out only a few weeks before the end of the year. Or at least the numbers behind lead single “Hello” bode accordingly.

The song leads Billboard’s Hot 100 for a third straight week, partially on the strength of another 480,000 downloads. Per Billboard, that makes “Hello” just the fourth song to earn three straight weeks of more than 400,000 in digital sales, following Pharrell’s “Happy,” Robin Thicke, Pharrell, and T.I.’s “Blurred Lines,” and Gotye and Kimbra’s “Somebody That I Used to Know.” Of course, “Hello” was also the most streamed song in America as well as the radio play leader, so it’s dominating all around.

The only other major development in the top 10 is the arrival of Elle King’s “Ex’s & Oh’s,” which was released way back in February and has just now climbed to #10. Billboard does point out that Alessia Cara’s “Here” (#11), Selena Gomez’s “Same Old Love” (#14), and Ellie Goulding’s “On My Mind” (#15) are on the rise.

Over on the Billboard 200 albums chart, Chris Stapleton’s traditionalist country debut Traveller logs another week at #1 with 124,000 equivalent units on the strength of post-CMAs buzz. Eric Church’s Mr. Misunderstood tallies 65,000 units to rise to #2 in its second week. The week’s top debut is Ellie Goulding’s Delirium, logging 61,000 to start at #3. Other debuts: Tim McGraw’s Damn Country Music (#5, 43,000) and Sara Bareilles’ What’s Inside: Songs From Waitress (#10, 30,000). Also, the Beatles’ #1 hits collection 1 from 2000 climbs back to #6 with 40,000 thanks to a reissue.

POP FIVE

Adele – “When We Were Young”
There are a lot of jams on 25, but sadly, this Tobias Jesso Jr. co-write is not one of them. Love Jesso, but I hope his inevitable career as a Ryan Tedder-type industry songwriter doesn’t result in such Tedder-esque fare going forward.

Shawn Mendes – “I Know What You Did Last Summer” (Feat. Fifth Harmony’s Camila Cabello)
Mendes is the teenage Vine star-turned-actual star who Justin Bieber recently shaded into a new level of fame. When the teen thriller I Know What You Did Last Summer came out, he was just over two months old. Anyway, Mendes and one of the ladies from Fifth Harmony teamed up on this song, and it sucks.

Erik Hassle – “Smaller”
This song matches a note-perfect Frank Ocean impression with a surprisingly cheery indie-pop backbeat. I like it!

Niykee Heaton – “Best Thing Ever”
Just when you thought Mustardwave was over, Heaton delivers this carbonated stunner. It’s not the best thing ever, but it’s reminding me why this sound became so pervasive in the first place.

Melanie Martinez – “Soap” / “Training Wheels”
If you haven’t heard Martinez’s album Cry Baby, these quirky, metropolitan pop songs may well convince you to give it a spin.

NEWS IN BRIEF

  • Hozier and Tori Kelly covered the Beatles at VH1’s You Oughta Know concert in NYC. [VH1]
  • Demi Lovato covered Adele’s “Hello” for KISS FM Fall Ball. [YouTube]
  • Martin Garrix is collaborating with the singer from Walk The Moon. [Your EDM]
  • Justin Bieber released a video for every song on Purpose. [Hollywood Life]
  • Ariana Grande launched a fragrance with this ridiculous commercial. [YouTube]
  • Blake Shelton rescued some men from mudhole. [E!]
  • Nashville star Chris Carmack is releasing an EP. [Rolling Stone]
  • Adam Levine has a giant mermaid back tattoo. [Billboard]

HOLD ON, WE’RE GOING HOME