For the sake of this argument, let’s keep things real: "PILLOWTALK" (all caps) — the lead single off Zayn’s forthcoming Mind of Mine — is a serious jam. Chronicling the ups and downs of a tumultuous relationship (fighting! fucking! no mention of nights in with Netflix at all!), Zayn’s words, hooks, and high notes epitomize the type of pop persona he’s been trying to cultivate since breaking from One Direction almost a year ago. With this song, he’s an artist. Rebelliously, in the wake of One Direction’s own break, he sings unabashedly about sex and personal conflict, and alludes to the former with floral graphics censoring frontal nudity in the corresponding music video for "PILLOWTALK." He’s an adult, and he wants us to know it. But Malik is also a pop star, and not just in the boy band sense of the word. While One Direction was a cultural and musical phenomenon, the guys’ original cookie-cutter personas still created a mold from which it was nearly impossible to deviate. For five years (or four, if you’re Zayn), the boys cultivated easily accessible personalities in the spirit of professionalism. But the difference between one’s late teens and early 20s is massive, and while Made in the A.M. (the band's latest full-length) carried grown-up themes, they were still four men part of a bigger whole. Zayn, however, is all by himself now. Which already makes him cooler than we’ve been giving him credit for. While he’s undoubtedly working with a team that’s rooting for him to succeed (he’s signed to RCA, so I think we’d all be surprised if they tossed him in the deep end of the solo pool and expected him to swim beautifully and all alone), his career — at least outside label meetings and recording sessions — now rests solely on his shoulders. He’s not surrounded by his lads. He’s not onstage alongside anyone else who can take the heat if he makes a mistake. His solo endeavor forces him to take accountability for everything from his lyrical content to his choice to cast Gigi Hadid (who he’s dating) in his "PILLOWTALK" video. Which, controversially, adds to his coolness. And I know that made you want to toss your laptop into the ocean in response to my blasphemy. Full stop: The video for "PILLOWTALK" is OTT. In it, we see Zayn and Gigi kissing and looking dramatic, and then Gigi cries tears of blood and so does Zayn, but all of it’s done under what looks like an iMovie filter or a few graphics lifted from the first edition of The Sims. (Yikes.) It’s painfully, dramatically artsy and earnest, complemented by kaleidoscope effects and nude models that drive home the point that Zayn must be taken seriously.
But what else did we expect? Considering The Weeknd, Drake, and Justin Bieber have honed careers built on videos and songs with equal parts sincerity and “guys, please dial it down” imagery, it would betray Zayn’s foray into solo-dom if he were to sit alone under the sun strumming a guitar like he was waiting for Liam, Louis, Harry, and Niall to join him. This video is the equivalent of our journeys off to college, when we got hip haircuts and started listening to bands our friends back home probably hadn’t heard of. And yes, we look back on those years with a bit of face-palm, but they were also entirely necessary for us to break from our pasts and become the people we are now. To take a risk, regardless of how cheesy or “oh dude, no” blood tears may be, is still brave. Especially since it tells us Zayn’s willing to try, which is even braver. And that’s arguably what makes Zayn legitimately cool: his willingness to try to make something that’s entirely his own. Earlier this week in an interview with Zane Lowe, Malik admitted what seemed like the unmentionable: that he never wanted to be in One Direction, and that, for him, it was just kind of a runaway freight that kept steamrolling. (Train references are cool, right?) In response, some fans were unhappy, asking, “But you didn’t mind the money, did you?”
#ZaynOnBeats1 "zayn didn't really wanna be in a band" Well he didn't really mind the fame and money pic.twitter.com/jf0iRCpbFS— i follow back bc ily (@NarryMyDream) January 27, 2016
Zayn literally said he never wanted to be part of the band he just wanted somewhere to start getting famous, idc he's a traitor— hazza&boo (@larrysunshine_x) January 29, 2016
@1DUpdate_x @1Dinfocrew watched This is Us yesterday! Seemed like he wanted to be there at the MSG!!— Amanda (@acl11) January 28, 2016
And, well, no he didn’t. Like all of us did at our first jobs, he went to work, collected a paycheck, and then used the gig as a stepping-stone to get somewhere he wanted to be more. For Zayn, 1D wasn’t the be all and end all; it was the paid internship that got him a staff position someplace he felt better suited him. Of course, uncensored honesty for the sake of headlines is also a genius PR move — especially since Zayn’s legitimacy has previously been met with skepticism, which only generates interest. (Lest we forget his recent Billboard interview that saw him shame women for talking about hair and makeup, as well as a few fat-phobic remarks.) It’s not a great look (at all), but it also alludes to his flaws as a person, which are essential to, well, becoming a person. It would be disappointing if Zayn emerged from the One Direction machine and spoke and acted like Simon Cowell once expected him to. At 23 years old, Zayn is growing up and learning how to be both a grown-ass adult and an artist, and that he's speaking candidly (he recently referred to Louis’ newborn son as being “cute as fuck”) means he’s refusing to censor himself, both personally and professionally. Which is great and powerful, provided he learns from the consequences of throwing shade and speaking before thinking like the rest of us had to. (Seriously: I think about 99% of anything I said between the ages of 17 and 26, and I am so, so sorry, everybody.) Zayn was smart enough to leave a band he wasn’t happy in, and he was smart enough to release his debut album on the one-year anniversary of his One Direction departure. He’s smart enough to have released a video that’s trending on social media, and to create the #sexy, grown-up music he’s been aspiring to for what seems like forever. And all this at the age of 23. Which is pretty fucking cool.