When Zayn Malik abandoned the good ship 1D exactly one year ago, the Internet exploded. Fans took to Twitter to express their sorrows, conspiracy theorists (hi!) spewed non-facts supporting a narrative that painted Zayn as anything from a tired young man to a pop hero forced to compromise himself for the sake of Simon Cowell’s approval, and real talk was had about who could possibly hit the high note in “You and I” going forward. (Answer: Liam. Crisis averted.)
But now, with Zayn’s solo career underway, any doubts about his professional future have been silenced. Especially thanks to the success of his first single, “PILLOWTALK,” and the most recent jam, “Befour,” which capitalizes on his impressive vocal range and his obvious understanding of what we—as human beings—want to sing and dance to.
Even though we shouldn’t care. At 23, Zayn is a wee baby child. He’s Leonardo DiCaprio’s age upon the release of Titanic. He’s a former boy band member who was once targeted to tween and teen audiences, yet we (as grown-ass women) still care about him to the point of cranking his tunes at parties and blasting it from open windows on long car rides. Which I think is not just a testament to how good pop transcends age and demographics, but reflective of our thirst to get in on the ground floor of something special.
When Justin Timberlake dropped Justified in 2002, the Internet was a shadow of what it is now. We barely knew he’d left *NSYNC—we believed hiatuses were real—and we were taken with his transition from boy band frontman (sorry, JC) to Pharrell Williams collaborator. But, unlike Zayn’s 1D departure, we didn’t see Justin’s evolution as it was happening. Instead, we saw the emergence of the new True Pop Prince™ without any signs or signals, mainly because we didn’t have social media to document said signs and signals. Instead, we got “Like I Love You,” a slew of fedoras and no more *NSYNC, without any real answers.
So Zayn is our second chance; our means of following a pop star whose displeasure with his original band was documented in real-time. We saw him opt out of a morning TV appearance at the close of 2014. We noticed his absence from select shows at the start of 2015. And then he left, leaving a trail of personal development in his wake. Zayn is our chance to better understand the J.T. breakout and any/all solo stars who came before, and he is the vessel through which we can communicate with younger generations who remind us of ourselves, way back in 2002.
And he can hit one hell of a high note, let me tell you.