ZAYN MALIK PR Photo 2017 CR: Miller Mobley
Credit: Miller Mobley

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Leaving One Direction wasn’t easy for Zayn Malik, who officially parted ways with the band in 2015 to pursue a solo career. But the decision has worked out well for him so far: His first album, Mind of Mine, debuted at No. 1 and was positively reviewed by critics, including EW’s Leah Greenblatt, who called the record “a smoothly inclusive survey in modern R&B” in her B+ review. And while his new record will retain that sound, it’s also a step in a different, ahem, direction.

“It wasn’t easy making that decision and having the courage to step out first and make a record,” RCA Records CEO Peter Edge, who worked with Malik on the yet-to-be-titled new collection, tells EW. “This album has a more optimistic tone to it after coming through that more challenging time. It shows a lot of growth.”

That tone is apparent on first single “Still Got Time,” a dancehall-inspired jam featuring rapper PARTYNEXTDOOR. “If you think about the lyrics,” Edge points out, “it’s talking about how it’s great to be young and knowing you’ve still got time to do everything you want to do in life.”

And making music is what Malik wants to be doing — competition be damned: Since dropping “Still Got Time” March 24, three other former One Direction members have also unveiled their own solo releases. While Malik veers toward R&B, Harry Styles has gravitated toward classic rock, Niall Horan’s two songs lean acoustic folk-rock, and Liam Payne’s debut goes the hip-hop route.

“While we’re conscious of what everybody else is doing, I think we’re on the page that we just have to get on with releasing the music,” Edge says. “Everybody is going to coexist. What’s emerging is that there are different musical styles that each member is getting into.”

“Zayn just wants to make his music and do what he does,” Edge continues before explaining that this new album will be more personal and less producer-driven. “I think he definitely wants a lot of himself in there, and I think that’s what the last record had — it maybe even gave people more insight than they thought they were going to get.”

Malik’s album doesn’t have a release date yet, but it’s expected to arrive this year. Hear “Still Got Time” above.