It’s half past five on a balmy February afternoon in Beverly Hills, the time of day when the light streaks in horizontal, mingling with the smog into a dull, carroty glow that makes normal folks look beautiful, and beautiful folks look ethereal. Zayn Malik, 23 years old, slices through the glow and into his dressing room, the door of which is manned by a middle-aged bodyguard named Max. He’s finishing up a photo shoot at billionaire businessman James Goldstein’s mansion, a 4,500 square-foot architectural masterpiece built by John Lautner that’s made up of glass walls and poured concrete, and sits atop the Benedict Canyon enjoying the best views the city of Los Angeles has to offer. Millions of young people around the world define their lives around this man, so I’ll do it, too: We’re currently living in the Zayn A.D. era—after One Direction. Last March, Zayn announced his retirement from the group, making some off-handed statements to the press about refocusing on his private life. It was a move that launched a thousand hashtags and memes, instantly breaking the hearts of countless “Directioners,” but, for Zayn, it was necessary. Feeling creatively stifled, with indifference no longer an effective coping mechanism, he cut the cord and returned home, spending a few weeks with his mom and plotting his next move. A solo one.
Now it’s a year later. His first single, “Pillow Talk,” debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 in February (topping the charts in 68 countries), knocking Justin Bieber from the top spot. This month sees the release of his first solo album, Mind of Mine, a body of work created, for the first time, on his terms, with none of the restrictions that come with being one-fifth of a boy band. We leave the mansion, and drive to his house in Bel Air. He’s bopping his head to the stereo, playing me candy-coated pop cuts off his new record, including an Usher-esque tune called “Drunk.” We park, and as we stroll into his house I almost trip over his heavyset orange rescue cat, named Garfield. We sit in his makeshift studio, flanked by bookshelves stacked with souvenirs from a life in the spotlight, including an early Iron Man issue marked “To Zayn, from Stan Lee,” and the hip-hop history book The Big Payback. Over the course of an hour, Zayn opens up about authenticity, handling the spotlight, and stepping out from behind One Direction’s shadow.
There was a lot of mystery around your new songs. How does it feel to have “Pillow Talk” finally released?
The whole process behind the album was short, but it felt like forever. I wrote all kinds of personal stuff. When I thought about the way that it sounded to me, it sounded great, and I listened to it over and over again. Then I went to a transitional phase where I realized, “Shit. Everybody else is going to listen to this as well.” So I had to think about it from that perspective. There was a lot of built-up anxiety to create this thing. You don’t really know what’s going to happen. So when that song went out, and I saw the reaction from the fans, that took a little weight off me for a bit. Obviously, there’s still a lot of pressure. I don’t want to be a one-hit wonder, so I’ve got a lot of work to do.
When did you feel confident? There had to be a time when you thought to yourself, “This shit is good.”
I don’t think I’m ever going to think like that. It’s just not in my character. I might be quietly confident within myself, but I could never be sure that everybody is going to enjoy it. Everybody is going to say something negative at some point. You’ve got to prepare yourself for that, I guess.
When it comes to pop music, authenticity is key. How much did you struggle with your own authenticity when you were part of One Direction?
That was something that was always underlying, and ended up as the main factor of me leaving in the end. It was about denying the authenticity of who I was, and what I enjoyed about music, and why I got into it. That was always there. It was one of the things that wasn’t going to go away, so I had to go away.
That must have been frustrating. Leaving the band, I imagine you thinking, “Hey, I’m rich and famous and this is my job. It could be much worse. But this isn’t who I am.”
Exactly. No one can ever say I was ungrateful, even though it sort of comes across that way when I mention that I was frustrated with the band. That’s not the case at all. That was just an experience that had to be dealt with at the time. With the music that I’m doing now, I get to express myself, and that creative tension is gone.
There’s a moment in the “You and I” video where you and the rest of One Direction are all wearing the same sweater, with your faces morphing into one another. That underscores the lack of an individual identity.
Well, that video had a very specific message behind it. We were trying to show that, regardless of the fact that we’re a group, we all have our own story to tell. In a sense, I understood what that was, and I can see how people can look at that and go, “They’re all five the same guy. They’re all wearing the same clothes. They’re all doing the same shit.” But that’s not what we were trying to show. There were certain restrictions in terms of the way that we could come outside of that young teen boy look.
What type of restrictions?
Mainly my beard, honestly. I wasn’t allowed to keep it. Eventually, when I got older, I rebelled against it, and decided to keep it anyway. That was just because I looked older than the rest of them. That���s one of the things that is now quite cool. I get to keep my beard. I also wanted to dye my hair when I was in the band, but I wasn’t allowed to.
What’s more important to you, being real or being successful?
I believe that success follows authenticity. People see through fake shit. They don’t want to see that; they want a real person. That’s why Kanye is so successful. He’s speaking the truth, regardless of whomever he offends, he isn’t bothered. That’s admirable.
In One Direction, you were cast as the mysterious one, the one in the shadows. How do you feel now, being alone onstage?
In terms of me being described as the mysterious one, that was put on me as a stigma because I didn’t get the chance to speak as much. The other boys’ personalities were much more forward. They would answer the questions. I would let that happen because, like I said, I didn’t have any creative input there. I didn’t feel like I was going to say anything about it anyway. Now I get to talk about what I’m passionate about—it’s nice to have the chance to speak.
What about when you were younger, before One Direction. Did you always feel like you didn’t fit in?
When I was younger it was something that I always felt. There are people who fit into certain stereotypes; I never fit into them. I remember once, when I was younger, in drama class, an assignment where everybody had to do an impersonation of somebody else in the class. Everyone did an impersonation, but nobody could do an impersonation of me.
Why do you think that is?
I don’t know. I always thought it was quite strange. I didn’t understand it at the time. It makes sense to me now, because I wasn’t ever that particular in anything. I was always doing different things, a bit of a floater. Now that I’m older, I embrace it. That’s who I am.
Did it make you feel bad back then?
A little bit, yeah. As a kid, you naturally want to fit in. But later on, you learn that you don’t always need to fit in. You can just be yourself.
A lot of the songs on the album seem to be about women. How influenced is your music by women?
Massively. Not just women, but life in general. I feel like women are a big part of life, so I’ve got to include them in my songs! [Laughs.]
Do you think you make better art when you’re happy with your love life or when you’re not?
That’s an interesting question. I feel like you get creative with things when you can be honest. Whether that’s positive or negative, it can work both ways. If you’re in a really good place, you can write a really good, upbeat song. When you’re in a shit place you can write a downbeat fucking ballad! [Laughs.] That’s just the way it is. But I feel like you can draw good creative things from both.
What’s the breakdown of the album, in terms of love songs and pain or heartbreak songs?
There’s a good ratio of both. There’s a lot of falling in love and a lot of falling out of love. It’s probably 60/40, falling out of love.
You’ve been tight-lipped about your relationship with Gigi Hadid. You’re a huge pop star and the person you’re with is also very much in the spotlight. Are you getting used to it?
Nah. I try to keep the two very separate. I try to, as much as I can. But there’s only so much you can do.
Is it getting easier?
I’m learning to deal with it. It’s just one of those things now, in the background. I just leave it as a bit of a noise in the background.
There’s a part of the “Pillow Talk” video where you both seem to let your guard down—you’re smiling at each other. It doesn’t seem like there’s much acting there.
To be honest, the reason it was used was because we were just messing around. It wasn’t even, like, part of the shoot. You know when they say, “action”? They didn’t do that. It was just rolling.
Do you want people to have sex to your album?
Well, if that’s something that they would choose to do, then yeah.
Do you think people will?
Who knows? It’s a very sexual album. I’m sure it could fit into that scenario.
You’ve said in the past that you don’t want to be influential about faith or religion. Asking a 23-year-old to do that is a very tough task. Do you think as you get older your mind may change about that?
Who knows? There may be a time where I feel like I have something to say about a certain topic and I’m educated enough and armed with the exact information I need before I make a statement that doesn’t offend anybody. Then I will do that. But in today’s day and age, it’s very hard to make any sort of statement that doesn’t offend somebody. I don’t want to throw stones out of a river that’s already raging. You know what I’m saying? It’s doing its thing by itself. I don’t need to put any input in there. I’ll just leave everything to itself.
Given the amount of anger in the political discourse in this country, I can understand why you want to stay out of it.
Yeah. I see everything. I see the political thing. I see the Trump thing. I see it on the news. They are saying, “Does this mean Zayn Malik has to leave America?” These things are always there. I see what’s going on, but I’ll never be the person that will make some sort of statement. I never want to make anybody biased toward anything. I could have an opinion, but that’s my opinion. That’s the main thing for me. I don’t want to influence anybody’s brain in any sort of way.
Are you a competitive person?
Quietly. I’m not overtly competitive. I don’t shout it from the rooftops. But yeah, I always want to win.
What album has had the most impact on you?
Probably Tupac’s All Eyez on Me. The songs are so real, and from a perspective of a place where somebody is not afraid to be completely 100 percent honest. He’s the first rapper to talk about the fact that his mom was a crack addict. For me, that’s courageous as fuck. He took that risk and spoke about everything in detail openly and without any shame. For me to listen to that album as I grew up, it really helped me to understand that it’s OK to be honest with your art, because people appreciate that.
What are you worst at, when it comes to being a celebrity?
[Laughs.] I’m a pretty shit celebrity all around. But when it comes to TV, that’s the worst. I hate the whole setup. When it’s interviews like this, I don’t mind. I’m just talking to a normal person. It’s when you are fully glammed up and you’re sitting with a hundred lights in your face and someone is asking you questions in front of a crowd of people—that’s when it becomes a bit strange for me. I’m not a public speaker. I’m a singer. Those two things are very different in my brain. I’m not an extrovert in everyday life. I’m a performer. When it comes to stage I can sing and do that, but when I’m in normal-day life I’m very reserved. I guess that’s my downfall.
I’d like to ask you about your tattoos. Do you have any that are especially important to you, that nobody knows about?
I do. I’ve got a couple of Arabic writing tattoos and nobody knows what they mean.
And you keep them private?
Yeah. Just for myself. That’s why I wrote them in Arabic. Obviously some people can read Arabic, but the tattoos are in places that people won’t necessarily see.
There’s a song called “Drunk” on the album that is pretty straightforward. Are there similar songs about drugs or psychedelia on the record?
It is a lot of chill songs, vibes that you can just relax and do your thing to. In terms of psychedelic music, I’m not really that type of person. I don’t even get shit-faced drunk. I’m not really into that type of music. There are a couple of club songs that you can dance to a bit that have a sexy vibe, but there’s none of that hard dance stuff. I smoke sometimes when I’m writing. Sometimes it helps with the creative process, depending on the strain of weed.
How much do you smoke?
I smoked quite a bit in school. I used to write raps and I found it was quite helpful in that department, coming up with words and different concepts. It helped me think outside the box.
Do you think you’ll feel differently the night you drop your solo album as opposed to when you dropped an album with One Direction?
I know already it’s going to be massively different. I felt different when the single dropped. There’s so many extra emotions tied into it because it’s a personal song. None of the songs that I wrote in One Direction were personal to me. Whenever we’d get an award or this or that, it was never something that I was emotionally attached to. Whereas with this, I am. I know what’s going to happen. I’m going to be crazy ecstatic when that album drops. I’m going to be buzzing and I’m going to go out. I’ll probably party with my friends and enjoy it.
What’s your plan for after the new album drops?
I want to go to school. I’d love to get a degree in English, or literature.
And you think you’ll do it in L.A.?
I think so. Who knows? I think I’ll just do a home thing. I’ll get my courses from one of the universities around here and just do home study. It’s always something I’ve wanted to do. I’ve always wanted to get my degree eventually. I want to do that, and hopefully write my next record while I’m doing it.
What is your standard for success? Do you ever think about failure?
I think about all aspects of the outcomes of what is going to happen with everything. I don’t know if that’s just something in me, or something that’s natural with everybody. I tend to think about that. It does worry me sometimes, but all I can do is what I’m doing right now. Just go with it and try to hope for the best. I’m enjoying it right now, being creative. I’m enjoying writing music and doing this. And if it doesn’t work out, I would probably just live a simple life.
Do you think you’d be content with that?
Yeah. I’ve done a lot for a 23-year-old. I’d be stupid to complain.