When Zayn Malik left One Direction in early 2015, he didn’t really have a plan. They were in Hong Kong, on tour. Two weeks down, seven months to go. Zayn was already beat. So he hopped on a plane and flew home. Dad was skeptical. Mom made him some food. After all, he was still basically a kid: 22 years old, with the past five years of his life swallowed up by the madness of being in the biggest boy band on the planet. He’d joked that he’d only gone through with The X Factor in the first place because it beat taking exams. And while 1D were close pals, Zayn still felt like the creative odd man out, a lifelong hip-hop and R&B fan trying to find his voice in the group’s bright, pop-rock matrix. “There wasn’t any time to sit down and process anything and be like, ‘Is this what I really want to do?’” he told Apple Music after going solo in 2016. “That was the real underlying issue. That’s what it was for me. I just needed time to breathe.”
A gamble, for sure. But gambles always seemed like Zayn’s forte. It wasn’t just that he upended the boy-band code by refusing to dance, but he also breathed a little real-life spontaneity into a world whose moves often seem choreographed to death. The music has taken chances, too: the woozy, alt-leaning R&B of tracks like “iT’s YoU,” the club sounds of “No Candle No Light,” the decidedly adult themes of “sHe” and “PILLOWTALK.” Some teen stars never outgrow the past. With Zayn, you sense that the future has been on his mind for a while—it just took him a minute to get around to it.