Zayn Malik has had sex. But he doesn’t just want that fact to be implied in his lyrics or ingrained in his music. The 23-year-old ex-One Direction member wears it like a Boy Scout badge, placing himself between sheets and against walls time and time again. His solo re-introduction is a glimpse into his dirtiest thoughts, which, like the thoughts of most 23-year-old boys, are a bit half-baked and corny (“I think I know she don’t love me/That’s why I fuck her right,” he offers on “She Don’t Love Me”). Luckily, though, unlike most boys his age, Malik can sing. His range and vocals shine, from the clipped phrasing of “She” to the booming falsetto belt on “Befour.” Above hi-hat rolls or tribal drum ‘n’ bass beats, he carefully steers beyond banal lothario showmanship to prove he’s a convincing seducer.
Working with producers like Frank Ocean assist-man Malay, Malik’s move into deep, freaky R&B is immersive, even if his DNA is still catchy, accessible pop, as proven by clubby successes “Tio,” “Like I Would” and “Pillowtalk.” He stumbles with tepid ballads like “It’s You” and “Blue,” but the record is saved by its more experimental moments – specifically, the warm, neo-soul track “Truth” and hypnotic Persian-infused intermission “Flower.” The welcome surprises not only take Malik off the Justin Timberlake-paved track of post-boy band R&B album tropes, they create unique possibilities of his own. As he teases on “Befour,” he’s done this before, but not like this.