The stratospheric rise of One Direction owed a lot to that of their predecessor, Justin Bieber. The two acts were plucked from obscurity by savvy record producers and molded to suit a new breed of digital-savvy fans who would, in time, transform what success looked like for millennial pop artists. They even each had a trademark hair flip to call their own.
After years of hit albums, worldwide tours and a handful of scandals apiece, this week One Direction and Justin Bieber both release new albums that strive to tell the world they’re older and wiser now. One person who ought to be watching the dual release cycles closely is Zayn Malik, who pulled out of his obligations with One Direction in March due to the pressures that come with being a member of the world’s biggest pop act.
Since then, Malik has publicly tussled with Naughty Boy, Calvin Harris and his former bandmate Louis Tomlinson on Twitter; split with his fiancée, Perrie Edwards; and restarted his social-media presence with an influx of brooding black and white selfies and work-in-progress graffiti murals. One Direction never made any claims to be bastions of pop purity, but now Malik is truly off the leash, and getting ready to strike out solo on his own terms.
Malik is perfectly positioned to spend 2016 plotting a move that follows the example Bieber has set with his recent comeback campaign. Here are some of the ways he can replicate the model established by his former late-night-snack mate.
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1. Pick notable producers.
Malik once had a bond with producer Naughty Boy so tight it was replete with matching “Naughty” and “Zaughty” Adidas jackets, but since their Twitter spat in July, it’s unlikely we’ll hear a collaboration from the duo on Malik’s debut solo record. Just as Bieber has forged new ground thanks to his trio of Skrillex-produced bangers, Malik needs to hitch his wagon to an established partner who appreciates his pop roots but can excavate the R&B diamond inside him. Names like Jeremy Rose and Dev Hynes spring to mind, and considering Malik’s well-documented love of Drake, we’d love to see a Majid Jordan–produced track in his future.
2. Don’t shy away from transparency.
One Direction’s press access is largely limited to 15-minute chats during junkets, many of which are spent playing simplistic “would you rather?” games. In the past, Malik interviews have been subject to the band’s infamous list of vetoed talking points, but striking out on his own means the opportunity to open up and reveal what he’s actually feeling and thinking, as Bieber has done in recent interviews. As part of the group, Malik was always the more shy member, the one happy to hang back and let his more outspoken bandmates answer all the questions. Counteracting that introverted instinct will be tough for him, but it will ultimately allow audiences outside of the 1D diehards to learn what he’s really about.
3. … But be OK with being in the background.
It seems at odds with the last point, but one of Biebs’ best moves throughout this promo cycle has been taking a backseat when it comes to the visuals accompanying his songs. As someone whose fame is often unfairly reduced to the fact that he has a cute face that his female fans will happily pay to see, the narrative-driven “What Do You Mean” video; “I’ll Show You,” in which he barely shows more than his profile; and the totally Justin-free “Sorry” video are especially clever moves. Following five years of having his face plastered on everything from backpacks to duct tape, Malik can move into a new phase of his career safe in the knowledge that his music can have an impact with or without his mug accompanying it.
4. Show some self-awareness.
A recurring point of frustration One Direction fans express is the absence of critical thought or reflection in the messages the band sends them. After a year that included one band member leaving, their first ever canceled show, pot-stirring hype about inter-band conflict from U.K. tabloids and reports of an illegitimate pregnancy, all fans want is a little honesty — but all they get is a trickle of transparency amid a flood of marketing. Malik has the opportunity to pause that spin cycle by following Justin’s surprisingly excellent example at exhibiting oodles of self-awareness. Beginning with his Comedy Central roast and karaoke session with James Corden, through to his open display of exhausted emotion at the VMAs (that he dissected during a follow-up appearance on The Tonight Show) and criticism of his bratty behavior at his 2014 deposition in Complex, Justin has become a pro at openly owning up to his shaky past and sending the message that he knows what you’re saying and is not just in on the jokes, but making them himself.
5. Don’t turn your back on pop.
Zayn’s sensibilities have always skewed towards rap and R&B — genres that are antithetical to the more folk-inspired anthemic rock sound that 1D has been slowly building on in their past two albums. As much as they try to move beyond it, though, the band, like Justin, will always have pop music at their core. Zayn’s instinct is very likely pushing him in a totally different direction (sorry) to stake out his independence and emerging voice as a solo artist and earn that critical respect that has always just evaded his former band, but Justin has shown that pop and critical success aren’t opposing forces. Making the right moves in 2016 can offer Zayn Malik both.