There is no more divisive figure in American culture right now, right this moment, than Kim Kardashian. Like it or not, you’ve thought about her this year. Maybe you didn’t want to. Maybe she’s all you thought about. Maybe she’s born with it. Maybe it’s Crisco artfully applied to her butt. In any case, everyone is thinking about her. Talking about her. Playing her video game. Faving her selfies (by the millions). Critiquing her selfies (what kind of mother crops her own baby from a photo, etc.). Buying her merchandise. Following her every move. And it’s happening at all levels: The tweens know her from her app and the tabloids, the sentient masses know her from nine seasons on the E! network; musicheads know her as Ye’s muse (for better or worse); the fashion and art worlds know her as an undeniable tool of commerce; your grouchy uncle probably knows her as being famous for having seemingly done very little besides release a sex tape and swan around and therefore as some kind of vague representation of the decline of the West and the rise of the dominant mediocre.
What’s important is this: They all know who she is.
Naughty Boy’s recording studio is, on entry, an almighty dump. True to the spirit of a teenage boy’s bedroom, it’s painted in gloopy black with towers of clutter Jenga-ing on every surface and wall: a tableful of San Pellegrino, a Nerf gun, a terrible painting of Marlon Brando as the Godfather, boxfresh trainers, stacks of Heat magazines, a Tutankhamun mask, an Ivor Novello award, the Book of Answers resting under an expensive, optimistically lit, candle. It’s difficult to believe that Emeli Sandé and Sam Smith have sung their sizeable lungs out here to make career-defining records. Much less that Mary J Blige was in this room a few weeks ago, eating shepherd’s pie, homemade by her host.
“She liked it! She was sat right there,” he points to the Keep Calm … cushion next to me. “It’s mental, but this has to be somewhere I’m comfortable so that artists can relax. They won’t open up to you willy-nilly; you’ve got to work at it.
Beyoncé turns up on new Naughty Boy track Runnin’ (Lose it All) – listen
“I bought you cupcakes,” he says, looking at the picnic of red velvets between us. “Have some.” I scoff one (it’s stale) to diffuse any residual tension; a minute in, I had to ask his manager to leave the room, and as if on cue, Naughty Boy’s Mac has begun blaring a virus warning, ominously claiming its security is compromised. Given that it’s the machine he’s masterminded new Beyoncé material on, he seems distinctly unbothered. “Nah, it’s lying,” he says, clicking off. “It’s fine, really. It’s because I’ve been watching episodes of Community on it …”
But, anyway, to Beyoncé. Naughty Boy (actual name, Shahid Khan, and actual age, 30), has just released the lead single off his new album featuring the most famous female pop star on the planet. At the time of writing, the video for Runnin’ (Lose It All) has clocked 13m views in as many days on Vevo, with 3m+ plays of the song on Spotify. It’s weapons-grade Khan production: slick, anthemic pop built around the kind of epic chorus uplifting telly montages are made for. With Beyoncé. Needless to say, it went straight in at No 1. “The stars aligned,” he says, when I ask him how on earth he got here. Come off it, I heard him say the same thing on Lorraine the morning before; how did a Watford lad so apparently disinterested in celebrity and fame (a reoccurring, if at times contradictory, Naughty Boy conversational trope) manage to blag a collaboration with Bey?
Well, Beyoncé called me directly, a month ago.” And? “And, I was on the motorway, coming here from my friend’s studio. I was literally told that ‘Beyoncé’s gonna call!’ and that she didn’t want to go through the label or managers or anything.” Blimey. That must have been quite a moment. “There’s no point in me getting fangirl about it,” says Khan, chewing loudly on cola jellies. “It’s unprofessional. She’s the queen. You don’t ask the queen to be on your song but … yeah, we spoke for 20 minutes,” he adds, super casually. (Later, I bug him to read me her texts and he admits: “It’s boss shit. She just signs off with a B.”) As the rest of the story goes, Khan met Arrow Benjamin on the stairs to his studio, they worked on the track together, then an unfinished version was played to Beyoncé by her publisher. She rewrote some of the lyrics, recorded the vocal in New York and sent it over.
It’s a remarkable coup for Khan. His 2012 single La La La (featuring Smith) went to No 1, and his 2013 album Hotel Cabana, which featured Bastille and Tinie Tempah, as well as Smith and Sandé, sold more than a million copies. But Khan only really came to wider public attention in the last year, popping up in tabloid-feeding spats. His very public fallout with Zayn Malik, former one-fifth of One Direction, hangs heavily in the air; Khan has been fobbing off the press so far, hoping everyone will kindly bog off and not ask him why, in July, Malik cruelly tweeted: “@NaughtyBoyMusic you fat joke stop pretending we’re friends no one knows you.”
Their friendship has been heavily documented on social media since they met at the Brits last year and Khan faced a spectacular level of internet hate from 1D superfans every time he posted photos of them hanging out: sharing a bunk bed in Bradford at Malik’s aunt’s house, smoking and chilling in Khan’s Ealing studio, wearing matching #zaughty tracksuits (custom-made by Khan). It got worse once it was clear the rest of 1D didn’t much like him either. (Sample Twitter exchange, between Louis Tomlinson and Khan: “@NaughtyBoyMusic Jesus forgot you were such an in demand producer …. How does it feel to be riding on the back of someone else’s career?” And Khan to Tomlinson: “@Louis_Tomlinson Yeah how does it feel mate? You’ve been doing that for the last five years … I’ve got Emeli Sande and Sam Smith on my CV.” ) And got worse still, when Malik left One Direction in March and Khan, referred to by Popjustice as “occasional producer, and Zayn Malik superfan”, became 1D’s Yoko Ono.
People thought we were cooking something, plotting – we were just chilling. Swear,” Khan says today. “He just left the biggest pop band in the world, he needed a mate and I was a mate. We’re not the kind of business-savvy heads people were assuming we were. We were in a bubble and didn’t realise the magnitude.”
Khan is savvy, though. A music and marketing dropout from London’s Guildhall University, he was delivering pizzas for Domino’s in 2007 when he appeared on Deal or No Deal and walked away with £44,000; the cash meant he could invest in equipment and a studio in the shed of his parents’ garden in Watford. “Half of Emeli’s [platinum-selling] album was recorded on a Dell PC in that shed.” Khan tells me, a few times, that he never wanted to be famous but would rather have maintained an old-school pop mystery. But as far as swaths of the internet is concerned, he exploited his friendship with Malik by putting it online and getting in the press.
“Yeah, but I’m friends with lots of celebrities,” he says. “With Zayn, it was different because we were genuinely best friends doing the best friend thing. You won’t see me do that with anyone else. I don’t Instagram or tweet pictures when people come here for sessions, I think it was genuinely an exciting time – for him as well.” What did they bond over? “Initially, I think it was because we’re both from working-class Pakistani communities and were both thrown into this business. His [success was] more instant than mine, and on a different scale, obviously. But understanding that this place isn’t real, and connecting. Probably it was also a need to make a real friend in this business for both of us. Like someone real, from home.”
Khan tries hard to stay as normal as possible, despite his life often being at odds with everyone around him. “I made a pact with Emeli, after one particular night at Shoreditch House with all these other ‘celebrities’: never to do it again. Me and Emeli left, thinking, ‘What are we becoming? Never again’ I don’t want to be that.” And so when he’s not in a hotel or sleeping in his studio (he works at night), Khan lives at home with his mum, a housewife, and his dad, a retired taxi driver. “I’ve paid their mortgage off and they never have to worry again, but I’m the youngest in the family,” he says, as if the implication is obvious. “The tradition is that you live with your parents.” Khan’s older brother runs a beauty salon with his wife; his older sister is a makeup artist. The day after we speak, he’ll go to Eid prayers at the same mosque he always has, and hang out with the friends and family he grew up with. “Every time it gets more intense going back [to the mosque]. My selfie game has had to increase by 100 million per cent!” How have people changed around him? “There’s so much love, but there’s also a bit of edge - the Pakistani community is like your girlfriend being a bit miffed when you don’t spend enough time with her.”
Khan codeswitches easily enough, for the most part, between the two worlds – sometimes without choice. “America, they hold me [at the airport] for two to three hours every time. I’ll have a class-A visa sponsored by Sony, but they’ll do it and never give you a reason. You’re just there in a room, always with the same kind of people – Hispanics, Muslims, African Americans – and [immigration officials] might say, ‘Oh, it’s because of your surname’. But fucking hell, Khan?! At what point are we allowed to stop feeling bad for being Muslims?”
As for Malik, he trusts that things will eventually resolve themselves “because the friendship was real”.
“We sat here and watched Kabhi Khushi Kabhi Gham once [a 2001 Bollywood blockbuster], I just remember thinking: ‘I’m actually watching this movie with someone in the business, someone who gets it, the emotional trauma of Asian families and we both go through it.’ And I thought, ‘This is cool’. You can’t put a Bollywood film in front of anyone without them laughing their head off.”
The pair were, he says, supposed to be working on a song for a Bollywood soundtrack together. “I got approached by Shah Rukh Khan earlier this year. He’s doing Dilwale 2.” For reference, that is the industry’s single biggest star making its biggest sequel of the decade. “Yeah, I feel bad. But since me and Zayn fell out, my heart isn’t really in it.”
Does he miss him?
“I did, for a bit, not gonna lie. I was literally always at his house or here. You know what, the thing is, even when you become close with someone, you question everything as well. That this is a business, so the band splitting up and him leaving, it’s an economy. Our friendship was genuine, 100%. But then you have other relationships with lawyers and labels etc. I don’t think we actually fell out over the lack of friendship or trust, I think it was external influences.”
It’s not because, a couple of hours before Malik publicly terminated their friendship, Khan leaked a video online of unheard Zayn Malik material?
“I didn’t leak the video,” says Khan, frustrated, begins furiously rubbing his nose. “I didn’t leak the video,” he says again. But, I say gently, you can see your reflection on the TV screen, holding your mobile, filming it?
“I didn’t leak it. Krept, who is on the tune with Zayn, Snapchatted it. No one put it on YouTube or nothing. I genuinely didn’t leak the video.” He trails off. “To be honest, it was a bit late to leak the video, the song was old by then, y’know?”
What was the big betrayal, then?
“That wasn’t … that wasn’t … that was just him throwing his toys out of the pram. We fell out over something else.”
He’s obviously bruised by the fallout. Why not just pick up the phone and call him?
“I don’t think now’s the time, though. I think Zayn’s incredibly talented and his voice is amazing and the world doesn’t know that yet. The world doesn’t know how gifted he actually is, so I think the best thing for him to do now is to go a bit radio silent and let the music do the talking, because then he won’t have to get into Twitter wars with Calvin Harris or me, or whoever. There’s no music out there, so right now he’s just the guy who left One Direction, but I know different, because I know him.” He nods at his possibly corrupted, virus-inflicted Mac. “The music’s there, on the hard drive.”
I don’t know I believe an awful lot especially when a mgr was there with him but yeah I do think there was something around this that we may never discover. I do also believe they were mates perhaps not as close as he suggests but I do think they were, maybe still are. I also think Liam spent time at the studio when Zayn was there as well. I think time may reveal more but while NB is with syco after the boys arent hopefully then itll be hard to get the truth.