One was a 13-year-old Canadian YouTube star with pop stardom in his future. Another was a teen heartthrob in U.K. band One Direction, touring the world with hit love songs like “That’s What Makes You Beautiful.” A third was the youngest member of Disney Channel’s own Jonas Brothers band. In an unlikely turn of events, Justin Bieber, Zayn Malik and Nick Jonas have all found themselves at the peak of their respective careers, and near the top of the hip-hop world at that.
Bieber’s journey up the hip-hop charts was perhaps the most predictable, given that he was discovered by Atlanta R&B legend Usher doing covers of famous Ne-Yo and Chris Brown songs on YouTube. As far back as January 2010, with his hit single “Baby” featuring a PG rap verse by Atlanta’s own Ludacris, it was clear that Bieber had an affinity for hip-hop. Soon after, Kanye West and Raekwon appeared on his “Never Say Never: The Remixes” album. When Nicki Minaj’s stardom began to rise in 2012, Bieber grabbed her for “Beauty and a Beat.” Even though he was collaborating with rappers, all of these songs were well within the pop genre.
Recently however, Bieber has taken up rapping himself, and has engaged with traditional hip-hop motifs including sex, alcohol and fast cars in his life outside the studio. Since 2014 alone, Bieber has abandoned a pet monkey at German customs, painted racist graffiti on a wall, patronized a brothel, mysteriously collapsed backstage at an arena show, vomited onstage, been videoed urinating in a bucket while yelling “Fuck Bill Clinton,” inexplicably worn a gas mask in public, gone shirtless through airport security, been photographed biting a stripper’s nipple and allegedly assaulted his own bodyguard and a limo driver during childish tantrums, all per an unflattering Rolling Stone cover story.
On Travi$ Scott’s song “Maria I’m Drunk,” Bieber somewhat shockingly raps, “Yeah, I’ve been drinkin’ all night, Take a shot, all we got is Don Julio … Girl I just wanna see what that booty do.” Despite, or perhaps because, of this total departure from his teen sweetheart days, Bieber has been able to revive his career. His most recent album, “Purpose,” has sold 1.6 million copies and has seen four separate songs hit No. 1 on the charts. The world seems to prefer the Bieber that swigs Hennessey while performing with Rae Sremmurd to the mop-headed “Baby” crooner of just six years ago.
Malik’s introduction to the hip-hop world has been far more recent and sudden than Bieber’s. Just one year ago, the English singer left One Direction to pursue a solo career, to the dismay of millions of passionate — and very young — pop fans. After signing to RCA Records, home of Snoop Dogg, A$AP Ferg, G-Eazy and many other hip-hop leaders, Malik released his first single, “PILLOWTALK.” Presumably an ode to his very famous girlfriend, supermodel Gigi Hadid, Malik touches on intimate material that would have been out of bounds during his boy band days, even throwing in a few expletives to emphasize his newfound independence and manhood. Capitalizing on his status as a sex symbol, Malik also hops on the remix to Chris Brown’s hit “Love You Back to Sleep” alongside Usher, bringing us predictably not-safe-for-work lyrics. In just six years, Malik has gone from guest starring on Disney Channel’s “iCarly” to collaborating on forthcoming work with hip-hop artists ranging from singer The Weeknd to traditional rappers Big Sean and even Kendrick Lamar. While his individual success may never match that of One Direction, Malik has forged an impressive start to his solo career by latching on to the hip-hop scene.
Nick Jonas’ road to hip-hop success was by far the most unlikely. Known as the baby of the three-man Jonas Brothers band, Jonas displayed possible star power on its hit song “Burnin’ Up.” Few could have predicted his collaboration with Sage The Gemini, a Bay Area rapper of “Gas Pedal” fame, on successful single “Good Thing.” Unlike Bieber or Malik with their legal trouble and bad-boy image, respectively, Jonas has maintained his choir-boy reputation while still managing to infiltrate the crossover pop-hip-hop genre. Aided by remixes from Tinashe and B.o.B. of his smash single “Jealous,” Jonas has branched out from pop into R&B seamlessly.
Bieber, Malik and Jonas have plenty in common. All three artists are in their early 20s and have experienced recent career breakthroughs due in part to their embrace of R&B and hip-hop influences. But while Bieber has surrounded himself with established rappers and has the scandals and arrests to prove his commitment to his new persona, Jonas has found a niche as a sweetheart R&B hook singer, and Malik has received accolades for his shift into a brooding R&B artist without picking up any of Bieber’s bad habits. It is hard to say who will be next to make the jump from pop to hip-hop, but it appears that these three are here to stay.
Sam Abrams is a junior in the School of Foreign Service. He is an alternating columnist of ON THE RECORD, which appears every other Friday.