Who 'Is' Niall Horan?

“Slow Hands” reveals an unexpected side of the singer and completely blows our minds

This week — the week before Harry Styles releases his full-length solo debut — Niall Horan stepped the fuck up and arrived.

To be more specific, he released a stupid sexy single, “Slow Hands.” Seconds into the track, whether it’s the beat or the exponentially more adult lyrics, it’s obvious the Niall we once knew doesn’t live here anymore.

Clearly, the man who only last fall gave us “This Town” has left the building.

But Horan’s new direction (all puns intended) didn’t come out of nowhere. While his 1D brethren embraced the art of reinvention as the band grew, Niall was the only member whose narrative stayed relatively consistent. He played guitar onstage with them for years, he seemed genuinely happy to be one of the lads (almost like he didn’t know he was in a massively popular band at all), and even when the rumor mill briefly linked him to Selena, he handled it all with optimism and grace. Niall has always just seemed happy to be here, which is what makes “Slow Hands” such a surprise. It sounds like a track that follows years of artistic evolution. It sounds like the product of a grown-ass man. And Niall has always seemed almost more like a young pup.

A change this dramatic raises some questions. Was his sweet, naive persona of yore all an incredibly clever act? Is Niall the Keyser Söze of pop?

Maybe. But only because some of us (and especially me) half-expected his “This Town” follow-up to trail the path of Ed Sheeran, another artist who uses his guitar and Nice Guy™ reputation to plant earworms across the charts. But unlike Ed, Niall has never seemed like he's using that wide-eyed, whimsical persona to get ahead. In fact, he has steadily maintained his own trajectory while the rest of us assigned a narrative based on the musicians surrounding him: Zayn was mysterious, Harry was the token babe, Liam was the talker, Louis was the rebel (or something), and Niall was … nice.

But as we can glean from “Slow Hands,” he’s not that innocent. And the thing is, when you revisit his past interviews or 1D lyrics or even his Snapchat stories, he’s never said he was. That was us, making assumptions. From 2012 on, Niall has simply played down his personal life and ambitions by playing up his zest for the band, and that gave him enough room to grow into the solo star he decided to be. Which is also why he hasn’t needed to reinvent himself the way some of his peers have. Unlike the rest of the guys, Horan never committed to a specific pop-star personality. He was a musician first and foremost. He was the only One Direction member who played an actual instrument onstage.

Which isn’t to say that playing an instrument legitimizes one pop star over another. (It doesn’t.) But when you zoom out to reveal Niall’s big picture, you begin to see that he’s always been building up to this moment in his own understated way. While “This Town” leaned toward a sound typically reserved for guys who bust out acoustic guitars at house parties, “Slow Hands” goes deeper into the early-aughts vibes of artists like Paolo Nutini and John Mayer — which works, thanks in part to the way Niall slowly and intentionally delivers his lyrics.

You could argue that the reason cynics may have actually sat up and listened to Horan’s second solo track is because it’s surprising; that it’s the boy-band equivalent of Christina Aguilera following up her wholesome debut album with “Dirrty.” Innocence can be (and is) a currency, but where “I’m an adult now!” pop cotillions are par for the course as an artist figures out who they are, Niall’s wide-eyed persona was really only the result of our own projections. He had bright blue eyes and an Irish accent, yes, but he never claimed to be anything other than a twentysomething-year-old young man. Being stoked to sing and run around onstage doesn’t translate to “I am a child.”

And this is why he’s avoided falling into a boring "nice boy" shtick. Niall never said he was, implied he was, or tried to claim that he was special, misunderstood, or “not like the other guys.” He’s made his way by being authentic, by being himself. And in an industry where myth and reinvention are massive components to the success of most solo careers, avoiding that path almost seems like a sneak attack. Like out of nowhere, Niall Horan morphed into a grown-up and delivered a song that implies as much — like he’s Kevin Spacey walking that limp off at the end of The Usual Suspects to reveal who he really is.

But Niall has been telling us who he is the whole time. The only issue is that some of us (hi there) weren’t paying attention.