Zayn Malik’s debut solo album, Mind of Mine, comes out Friday, but the U.K. singer is far from a first-timer. As a founding member of One Direction, the global pop phenomenon born on Season 7 of The X Factor, Zayn has six years of experience — and more than 18 million record sales — under his belt already. A year ago, Zayn left the band with the goal of carving out space on his own terms, and making music that better aligns with his R&B sensibilities. He might be a deft hand at playing the role of the pop star by now, but Zayn’s career is entering a new phase in which he’s effectively wiping the slate clean to start fresh. We look back at where it all began, and where he’s been since.
April 11th, 2010: Zayn Auditions for The X Factor
Seventeen-year-old Zayn Malik might never have made it onstage at The X Factor‘s Manchester, England, auditions in 2010 if it weren’t for his mother, Trisha, who forced him to get out of bed for the hour-long drive from their home in Bradford. Later, he would say that all he hoped for was an objective judgment on whether or not he had talent as a singer — something that was confirmed when judges Simon Cowell, Louis Walsh and Nicole Scherzinger put him through to the Bootcamp round on the strength of his rendition of Mario’s “Let Me Love You.”
His audition wasn’t broadcast on the show, so TV audiences were first introduced to the teenager in later episodes, when he refused to partake in a group dance lesson, fearing embarrassment if he attempted the routine. Cowell noticed he was missing from the group, found him hiding out and convinced him to return. After being eliminated from contention as solo performers, Malik and future bandmates Harry Styles, Liam Payne, Louis Tomlinson and Niall Horan were assembled by Cowell to form a band and remain in the competition in the “Groups” category. On that day — July 23rd, 2010 — One Direction was officially born.
Their first group performance at Cowell’s home in Spain was of Natalie Imbruglia’s “Torn,” a rendition filled with nerves, hope and harmonies, in which Malik’s impressive falsetto set him apart from the pack for the first time. One Direction progressed to the live, televised performances on The X Factor, but were eliminated by viewer vote during the semi-finals. They came in third but, as Zayn told the audience, “We’re definitely going to stay together. This isn’t the last of One Direction.”
November 18th, 2011: One Direction Release Debut LP
Following the nationwide X Factor Live Tour around the U.K., One Direction ventured into the studio for the first time to record Up All Night, their debut album, for Syco, Simon Cowell’s label. The record came out in November 2011 (they’ve continued this pattern by releasing a record every November in the years since) and featured singles “Gotta Be You,” “One Thing” and “What Makes You Beautiful” — the latter of which propelled the group from reality-TV also-rans to a global powerhouse of pop.
During the band’s 2012 North American tour in support of the record, the boys tapped into their X Factor roots by performing songs from a stable of reliable covers — like “Valerie” by the Zutons, “Use Somebody” by Kings of Leon and “Torn.” At a show at San Jose State University in June 2012, Malik switched gears when Horan encouraged him to perform Drake’s “Shot For Me,” proving his chops with soulful R&B.
August 20th, 2013: This Is Us Premieres in London
Malik arrived at the London premiere of the Morgan Spurlock–directed documentary One Direction: This Is Us with a fiancée. He had been dating Perrie Edwards for more than a year after meeting her on the set of The X Factor, where her band Little Mix — another creation of Cowell’s — won the competition in 2011. Just two months after getting a comic-style image of her tattooed on his bicep, he proposed. (Two years later, their reps would confirm they had split up.)
This Is Us was more than just a concert film; it depicted what life was like on the road for One Direction, the inner workings of the band and its crew during their second consecutive year on tour around the world, and the origin stories of each of its members. Malik was known, in interviews and appearances, to be more withdrawn and introverted than his bandmates, and the film allowed him a chance to open up and be heard. A key scene saw him taking time out from the band to call his mother as she visited the new house he’d bought for his family back home in Bradford.
May 28th, 2014: One Direction Drug Scandal Hits Tabloids
One Direction never made claims of being a straight-laced, virginal band, and unspoken ideas about the group’s true character were reinforced when The Daily Mail leaked a video showing Malik and Tomlinson smoking a joint while riding in the back of a car in Peru. The video, which was filmed by Tomlinson (so only Malik is seen smoking), shows the pair discussing the quality of their merch in comparison to Kid Rock’s photography book as other passengers in the car arrange for them to collect more substances in Jamaica and Chile.
The leak of the video not only outraged some One Direction fans (and their parents), it also had ongoing consequences for the band; during the initial phase of the On the Road Again tour in 2015, the Philippines’ Immigration Bureau requested that Malik and Tomlinson pay $5,000 in bonds before performing in Manila as a safety measure. But Malik would take leave from the tour before that concert date arrived.
November 17th, 2014: One Direction Release Four
The release of Four — One Direction’s fourth record and Malik’s final one with the band — was mired in rumors, many of which were centered on Malik. His bandmates explained to Matt Lauer during an album release event at Universal Studios Orlando that he was too unwell to travel there with them, but the Today host controversially questioned Payne’s explanation: “Is it something more serious than just a minor illness? There have been rumors of substance abuse. What’s going on?” Payne insisted a stomach bug was bothering Malik, who rejoined his bandmates onstage the following day.
March 18th–25th, 2015: Zayn Spends Final Week With One Direction
On March 18th, Malik performs what will be his final show with One Direction at AsiaWorld Arena in Hong Kong. The following day, One Direction’s publicist Simon Jones tweets, “Zayn has been signed off with stress and is flying back to the UK to recuperate.” Horan, Payne, Styles and Tomlinson performed three more shows in Indonesia as a hastily arranged four-piece, before the news of Zayn’s departure broke on on March 25th. “My life with One Direction has been more than I could ever have imagined,” the singer wrote in the band’s official statement. “But, after five years, I feel like it is now the right time for me to leave the band.” The remaining four members continued the On the Road Again tour for seven more months, before releasing their fifth album, Made in the A.M., in November. They announced that they’d be going on hiatus during 2016 and would not tour the record.
March 30th, 2015: Naughty Boy Leaks Zayn Demo Track
Less than a week after Malik’s departure from One Direction, his friend, DJ and producer Naughty Boy, released a demo track called “I Won’t Mind” via a tweet saying, “let the music do the talking guys. thank us later.” Lyrics like “we are who we are when no one’s watching” correlate with Malik’s decision to leave the band to “be a normal 22-year-old who is able to relax and have some private time out of the spotlight.”
In June, a rendition of Rae Sremmurd’s “No Type,” featuring Malik and Mic Righteous, was leaked on SoundCloud by the rapper, who wrote in a Facebook post: “I got fed up of waiting and took matters into my own hands regardless of repercussions.” A month later, Naughty Boy’s relationship with Malik ended publicly after the producer leaked snippets of a music video for the “No Type” remix. “Stop pretending we’re friends no one knows you,” Malik tweeted.
These weren’t the first (and wouldn’t be the last) times Malik made headlines because of his social-media activity. He quit Twitter in 2012 after receiving Islamophobic hate and amidst rumors he had cheated on Perrie (he rejoined 48 hours later, seemingly with the obligation to throw support behind the announcement of 1D’s upcoming single, “Live While We’re Young”); dividing One Direction fans with pointed jabs at former bandmate Tomlinson; and lashing out at Calvin Harris over the DJ’s support of Taylor Swift’s petition for Apple Music to pay artists. In September 2015, he abandoned his Instagram handle @niazkilam and, with a post about his solo Interview cover, the one-name-only @zayn was born.
April 17th, 2015: Zayn Attends First Post–One Direction Awards Show
After four years of being flanked by his more talkative bandmates, Zayn took to the stage at the 2015 Asian Awards to accept the award for Outstanding Achievement in Music. His mother accompanied him to the ceremony, while Naughty Boy was on hand to present him with the trophy. “I want to thank my mum and dad for making me Asian,” he said in his speech, before acknowledging his past with One Direction. “I’d also like to take this moment to thank four of the best guys that I’ve ever met. … Here’s to the future!”
July 29th, 2015: Zayn Officially Goes Solo
“I guess I never explained why I left,” Zayn tweeted in July, upon announcing that he’d signed with RCA. “It was for this moment to be given the opportunity to show you who I really am!” One Direction fans were torn between feeling anticipation for his solo offering and insulted at the hashtags he chose to accompany the announcement: “#REALME” and “#realmusic.”
Throughout the rest of 2015, rumors flew about the team that Zayn was assembling for this new phase of his career. In October, there was talk of the large and diverse live backing band he had hired; producer Malay announced their collaboration in a tweet, calling Malik “pure genius” and describing the camping trip they’d taken together to record in nature. His new manager, Sarah Stennett, told Billboard that life in One Direction was not conducive to Malik being the artist he was set to become. “The environment he was in was all about compromise,” she said. “My job is simple: Make sure nobody gets in the way of him becoming an important artist.”
January 28th, 2016: Zayn Tells Zane Why He Wanted to Leave Band
In his first on-camera interview as a solo artist, Malik told Beats 1’s Zane Lowe that he’d had reservations about the work he was doing as part of One Direction from the beginning. He said he’d wanted to leave the band not long after it was formed, and echoed Stennett’s read on the lack of democracy in the group. “When I realized the direction that we were going in (mind the pun) with the music, I instantly realized it wasn’t for me because … I couldn’t put any input in.”
February 20th, 2016: “Pillowtalk” Debuts at Number One
Malik made what Rolling Stone called “his Bieber-esque move into adulthood” with his first single, “Pillowtalk” in January. Featuring Malik’s girlfriend, model Gigi Hadid, the video’s sexual overtones were a far cry from his last video with One Direction, in which the most he did was gently touch his date’s hand over a plate of pasta. “Pillowtalk” also did what no One Direction single had ever done when it debuted at Number One on the Billboard Hot 100.
March 25th, 2016: Zayn Releases Mind of Mine
The cover art for Malik’s first solo record, Mind of Mine, was unveiled during his performance of its second single, “It’s You,” on The Tonight Show With Jimmy Fallon. During his interview with Fader in 2015, Zayn described the record thusly: “All the songs are different genres. They don’t really fit a specific type of music. … I don’t really know what my style is yet. I’m kind of just showing what my influences are.” The 18-track album features “Wrong,” a collaboration with Oakland-based R&B singer Kehlani.
The record’s release date — March 25th, 2016 — marks a year to the day since it was announced Malik would be leaving One Direction (something he says is purely coincidental). But it’s clear that every statement Zayn makes is carefully plotted out. No contemporary pop artist has released a record under the same level of scrutiny and surveillance. It’ll be a treat to see what he does with the attention — and who he chooses to be when everyone’s watching.