If you found yourself anywhere near a computer or smartphone early Wednesday afternoon—any device with the ability to access Twitter, really—you could hear the muffled wailing of pop fans and cute boy enthusiasts the world over: Zayn Malik, the one with the smoky voice and the perfect hair, announced that he was leaving One Direction, thus rendering the band a foursome. And while that grieving process shouldn’t be compromised in any way, shape, or form, it’s worth taking a moment to consider what Malik’s departure is going to mean for the future of the band, and what his own future as a recording artist might hold.
In the four years since their debut album, 2011’s Up All Night, One Direction have transformed from a ragtag band of imps with more promise than vocal talent into a group of tonally distinct, creatively ambitious young men with appetites and attitudes. To these ears, Malik was at the core of that evolution: he was the band’s strongest and most readily identifiable singer, his voice coloured by a little musk and a pinch of salt. On the band’s latest album, last year’s very strong Four, he led off highlights like the tender “Night Changes” (a song rendered rather poignant if you pretend it’s about the band breaking up!) and anchored the middle of the lusty, crackling “No Control.”
Malik may have a considerable sonic presence on the band’s best and recent work, but he hasn’t had a major hand in their shift towards taking charge of their songwriting. Former bandmates Louis Tomlinson, Liam Payne, and Harry Styles have stepped up the magnitude of their contributions; between the three of them, they were credited with writing all but four of the sixteen tracks that made up Four‘s deluxe incarnation. Malik is only ever credited in tandem with other bandmates, and has only four such credits on the album. He may have influenced the band in other intangible ways, ones that don’t show up in any formal capacity—writing and production credits are just one set of windows into the creative process—but it feels safe to suggest that the band will continue to churn out stadium-ready power-pop, even in his absence. The texture and sensuality he lent to their vocal arrangements will be missed, but they can carry on without him.
His future as an artist in his own right is much less certain. To hear Malik tell it, he’ll be taking an indefinite leave from the spotlight—in his statement, he said that “I am leaving because I want to be a normal 22-year-old who is able to relax and have some private time”—but it’s still fun to speculate about the music he could make when he decides to return. He’s talked about how he listened exclusively to R&B and hip-hop before joining the band, and his voice is well suited to the shadow and sinew that characterizes the sounds of those genres today. It’s not hard to imagine him emulating Nick Jonas’ recent embrace of lithe, lascivious funk, or dirtying up Sam Smith’s pristine pop-soul; if a move were to come out of left field, he could pair well with avant-pop auteurs like Dev Hynes or Jamie xx, or vocalists like Jessie Ware.
He’s still only 22, and his tour of duty with the world’s biggest boy band will earn him plenty of coverage when he decides to make his next move. For now, there’s only one thing to say: goodbye, Zayn. We’ll always have those midnight memories.