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Rob Sheffield Rates One Direction Members' Solo Careers So Far
From Harry Styles to Zayn Malik, how each member is faring musically – and how they've addressed the breakup in the press

By Rob Sheffield Aug 3, 2017 10 hours ago

It’s official: All five lads in One Direction have kicked off their solo careers. Ever since 1D went on hiatus in late 2015 – we can only hope it’s temporary – the world has been eager to hear what kind of history they’ll make on their own. Some have dropped full-fledged albums; others are still getting their toes wet. But in the great Beatle tradition, they’re all speaking their minds about the breakup, in the press and in their songs – whether they’re dishing out praise or shade. Here’s a handy guide to the story so far.

Louis Tomlinson

Solo music: Working on his first solo album after releasing one single, “Just Hold On,” a banging duet with electronic DJ Steve Aoki. The most prolific songwriter in 1D – and the most continually surprising – so “Just Hold On” feels like just a taste of what he can do, more a teaser for glories to come than a proper solo debut.

Solo mystique: “Just Hold On” gained emotional resonance from the way he debuted it on The X Factor just a week after the tragic death of his mother from leukemia, making it sound like a heartfelt tribute.

Sounds like: Skrillex plus Diplo plus Calvin Harris times Stevie Wonder plus Howard Jones.

Sample lyric: “What do you do when the chapter ends?/Do you close the book and never read it again?”

Fighting words: “Niall, for example. He’s the most lovely guy in the world. Happy-go-lucky Irish, no sense of arrogance. And he’s fearless. There are times I’ve thought: ‘I’d have a bit of that.’ Zayn has a fantastic voice. Harry comes across very cool. Liam’s all about getting the crowd going, doing a bit of dancing. And then there’s me.”

Equivalent Beatle record: George’s “What Is Life?”

Harry Styles

Solo music: His debut was a Number One hit (obviously) and a deeply personal singer-songwriter statement (which wasn’t obvious at all), steering away from celebrity glitz. “Sign of the Times,” a five-minute piano ballad that’s long and rambling and downright weird, made up in the studio on the spot, nonetheless went Top Ten. He kicks off his first solo tour this fall.

Solo mystique: He’s making his mark as a credible adult rocker without the slightest hint of shade at his pop fans – which is merely the most difficult trick in show biz. He takes the all-smiles Paul McCartney exit ramp while Zayn has gone for John Lennon–style beef. And “Two Ghosts” drops sly hints about Taylor Swift – he even sings about a refrigerator light, an in-joke for Swifties everywhere – showing that he loves to keep everyone guessing.

Sounds like: Mick Jagger plus Harry Nilsson plus Taylor Swift plus Badfinger plus Donovan times Stevie Nicks.

Sample lyric: “You can’t bribe the door on your way to the sky.”

Fighting words: “How can you say young girls don’t get it? They’re our future. Our future doctors, lawyers, mothers, presidents, they kind of keep the world going. Teenage girl fans – they don’t lie. If they like you, they’re there.”

Equivalent Beatle record: Paul’s Band on the Run

Zayn Malik

Solo music: He quit 1D bitterly in 2014, calling them “generic.” His R&B debut Mind of Mine went Number One in 2016, as did his single “Pillowtalk.” The soft-porn video with model Gigi Hadid was his inevitable “hello, I’ve just left a boy band, so let me announce I am in favor of sex-having” statement. If Gigi is his Yoko, this was his Plastic Hadid Band. He also dueted with Taylor Swift on a Fifty Shades of Greysoundtrack theme.

Solo mystique: Talks about how repressed he felt in the group, yet hasn’t quite backed it up with his pleasantly blah solo music. His best solo hit, “BeFoUr,” comes on like a dis of his ex-bandmates, who made the album Four right BeFoUr he quit – and the capitalized letters suggest he’s sending them a Big FU.

Sounds like: early the Weeknd meets late the Weeknd, with a side order of George Michael circa Listen Without Prejudice.

Sample lyric: “I don’t drink to get drunk/I feel all the right funk.”

Fighting words: “That’s not music I would listen to. Would you listen to One Direction, say, at a party with your girl? I wouldn’t. To me, that’s not an insult, that’s me as a 22-year-old man. As much as I was in that band, and I loved everything that we did, that’s not music that I would listen to.”

Equivalent Beatle record: John’s “How Do You Sleep?”

Niall Horan

Solo music: The Irish guitar boy, always a hit with the moms, scored a great solo hit last fall with the understated and beautiful folkie ballad “This Town.” As a nostalgic breakup song, it doubled as a bittersweet farewell to the group. His second solo single, “Slow Hands,” goes for a sultrier, even bluesier vibe, with lyrics about making out.

Solo mystique: He’s unflaggingly loyal to the group – he’s the one who talks about how it’s inevitable they’ll get back together – and he’s stuck to his long-running monogamous relationship with his acoustic guitar.

Sounds like: James Taylor meets Ed Sheeran, with Bonnie Raitt on lead guitar.

Sample lyric: “Slow hands/Like sweat dripping down our laundry.”

Fighting words: “When One Direction come back we’ll still have albums left to do. … It’s been a year and a bit already. We don’t want to put a time on it. But when that phone call does come, no matter whoever it comes from, we’re back again.”

Equivalent Beatle record: Ringo’s “Photograph”

Liam Payne

Solo music: The last to test the solo waters, Liam recently dropped “Strip That Down,” a party-hearty flop with Ed Sheerhan and Migos’ Quavo that missed the Top 40. He can do better – he cowrote some of 1D’s finest tunes – so it’s tough to guess why he even released it. He also just became a dad: Welcome to the world, Bear Payne!

Solo mystique: He gets personal about breaking free from 1D in “Strip That Down.” But it’s bizarre to hear Liam sing about hitting the club to chug rum and grind on groupies – it doesn’t ring true from a guy who just had a baby with one of England’s most famous models, Cheryl Cole. Quavo adds the unfortunate hook “She gonna strip it down for a thug” – there are many words to describe Liam, but “thug” doesn’t make the top ten thousand.

Sounds like: Lil Jon plus Wham! plus Nu Shooz plus Huey Lewis plus the News.

Sample lyric: “I used to be in 1D/Now I’m out free/People want one thing from me/That’s not me.”

Fighting words: “Everyone is now free to do their own thing in music and explore the music. I was worried that people would take it negatively but it’s not meant to be in that sense at all. None of us left the band; we’re on hiatus still, and what a great hiatus it’s been so far.”

Equivalent Beatle record: Paul’s “Spies Like Us.”