At the end of 2015, One Direction fans around the world were feeling sad and uncertain. It was the beginning of One Direction’s hiatus, and while the guys claimed it would only be an 18-month break, Directioners had a sinking feeling that there wasn’t actually a plan for the guys to come back together in the foreseeable future.
Shortly after that, Zayn Malik (who left the group on March 25, 2015) delivered the first of many One Direction solo projects with the sultry and (scandalous) “Pillowtalk” on Jan. 26, 2016. Although he was already not part of the group, it was the first time fans heard a 1Der do his own thing — and it was just the beginning.
A year and a half later, all five One Direction guys (Malik, Niall Horan, Harry Styles, Louis Tomlinson and Liam Payne) have released solo material, with Horan becoming the third to release a full-length album, Flicker, this Friday (Oct. 20) — also the same day that Payne released his second official single, “Bedroom Floor.”
When they were a unit, the quintet was able to go in, well, one direction musically. But since they’ve been given the individual freedom to try whatever genre they wanted, it’s been evident that they actually all had very different aspirations for the kind of music they wanted to make — or at least where their voices best fit, whether it’s R&B or classic rock.
The first indication of where the guys wanted to take their careers genre-wise occurred before 1D was even a thing, when they each auditioned for The X Factor UK in 2010. As Billboard previously pointed out, their audition songs were comparable to the music they’re making on their own — and without the voices or even just opinions of four other members, each guy has really been able to hone in on their specific sounds and skills.
Inherently, all five still carry a pop influence in their music, but have each found a unique lane. Here’s how all five members have ultimately found their own direction.
Zayn Malik — R&B
Although Malik’s early departure from the group hinted that his music would also be a departure from the pop-rock hits One Direction became known for, the booming bass and NSFW lyrics (like “In the bed all day, bed all day, bed all day/ Fucking and fighting” of his debut single “Pillowtalk” made it very clear that his PG-related days were over. And while Malik’s voice worked flawlessly for the belt-out moments of a 1D classic, doing things his own way resulted on his debut album Mind of Mine in an edge we hadn’t ever seen from him before, especially on the scornful “BeFoUr” and the haunting “iT’s YoU.”
Since Mind of Mine, Malik has collaborated with Taylor Swift, PartyNextDoor and Sia, each of whom has allowed him to flex his falsetto, as well as try out different sounds, like the tropical vibe on the PND team-up “Still Got Time.” His most recent release “Dusk Til Dawn” (with Sia) has a building melody and booming chorus that makes for perhaps Malik’s most dynamic release yet, also further showing that pop-influenced R&B is where his voice was meant to be from the start.
Niall Horan — Singer/songwriter
Horan was the most soft-spoken member of One Direction, with his solos providing a sweet, soothing balance to Malik and Styles’ power moments. He honed in on the pleasantness of his voice with his solo debut single, “This Town,” an entirely acoustic track that highlighted just how pure his vocals can be — and with his new album, Flicker, he ran with that simplicity.
Putting soft guitar behind a voice like Horan’s is exactly the way to help him shine, especially when it involves heartfelt lyrics like “I forget you’re not here when I close my eyes/ Do you still think of me sometimes?” Horan has stuck with 1D producer Julian Bunetta for his solo material, which has really helped him highlight the best parts of his voice. But while there are other slow melodies like “This Town” on Flicker (the title track, as well as album-enders “Fire Away” and “You and Me”), there’s also plenty of riskier digressions like the sexy “Slow Hands” — which earned Horan his first No. 1 on the Pop Songs chart — and the country-tinged Maren Morris collaboration “Seeing Blind.”
Upbeat tracks like “Since We’re Alone” make it pretty safe to argue that Horan has stayed closest to the wholesome One Direction vibe, especially the material on the group’s latter two albums. But rather than trying to achieve every special moment 1D had, Horan has stuck with a tone he can really drive home, creating special moments of his own.
Louis Tomlinson — EDM-pop
Less than two months after Horan surprise-dropped “This Town,” Tomlinson revealed a Steve Aoki collaboration, “Just Hold On” — a song that was almost even more unexpected, simply because EDM was a genre One Direction had never even waded into in their five years. Like Horan, Tomlinson has a bit of a softer tone to his voice, but also has the capability to belt when he wants. His voice pretty seamlessly intertwined with an electronic topline melody on “Just Hold On,” and passionate screams in the chorus also allowed him to show off a little.
Tomlinson carried the electronic influence with him on his second single, “Back To You,” enlisting Digital Farm Animals to produce and frequent dance collaborator Bebe Rexha to split vocals. The production is a little more stripped back than Aoki’s thumping track, with the bouncy beat helping to bring more attention to Tomlinson’s voice. He finally got the full spotlight on his most recent release, “Just Like You,” which meets his previous two singles in the middle, showcasing his vocal smoothness over an electro-pop bass line (or drop) — and that that’s where he feels most comfortable musically, at least for now.
Harry Styles — Classic rock
Any Mick Jagger comparisons Styles may have faced during the One Direction era have basically come to fruition, since he debuted with the poignant power ballad “Sign of the Times” back in April. The rock ballad spawned plenty of other classic comparisons, with the climb of the chorus mirroring David Bowie’s “Life on Mars” and Styles’ wailing finale bringing Foreigner’s “I Want to Know What Love Is” to mind. As mentioned, Styles and Malik were the two primary power-moment 1D guys — and Styles hasn’t lost that prowess in his own music, but now it’s set to heavier guitar that he matches with vocals more risqué than he attempted in the 1D days.
Harry’s self-titled album brings both his vocals and vintage instrumentation to the forefront, yet it feels less kitschy and more raw than any such One Direction track. The classic rock sound makes it possible for him to be more fearless in his delivery, which is displayed in feistier tracks like the thrashing “Kiwi”, and more intimate feels like those in acoustic opener “Meet Me in the Hallway.” Styles was always a standout vocalist in One Direction, but the rough-around-the-edges sound of his solo material almost feels like he has been reborn into another era — one he was always supposed to be part of.
And to top off the vocals, Styles sports some seriously rock star suits while performing. Talk about owning the rock vibes.
Liam Payne — Hip-pop
Unlike Tomlinson’s trio of EDM-influenced pop hits, Payne’s three releases are all rather different, so it’s hard to tell exactly which direction Payne is going to take musically. But if he wants to use the metrics of his debut single “Strip That Down” to gauge where he should go from his first release, the hip-hop/pop crossover feel isn’t necessarily a bad lane. The Quavo-featuring track recently took over Horan’s “Slow Hands” for the top spot on the Pop Songs chart, proving that going in a racier direction both lyrically and musically was definitely not a bad thing for Liam.
“You know, I used to be in 1D (now I’m out, free)/ People want me for one thing (that’s not me)/ I’m not changing, the way, that I (used to be),” Payne sings in “Strip That Down” — and actually, the 24-year-old’s subsequent releases hold true to that sentiment. While “Strip That Down” was a bold move into a more hip-hop sound, Payne dabbled in dance on the Zedd team-up “Get Low” and most recent single “Bedroom Floor” highlights his falsetto through a combination of pop, EDM and hip-hop. Payne has the most eclectic solo repertoire so far, and with his malleable vocals, he’s been able to experiment with where his sound best fits. As for where he’ll end up overall, we’ll wait and see, but clearly he’s doing things right for now.
If there’s one thing that the One Direction solo endeavors have done for all five guys, it’s reminding the world that they’re each individually talented in their own right, and there’s a reason they were all part of one of the most successful boy bands of all time. Sure, a group full of young, adorable British men is a big sell in its itself, but it’s ultimately the guys’ voices that won people over — and now, they’re each getting a chance to do what they want with their talents, with their individual styles remaining distinct enough that they really can each have their own direction.