The first track on Ed Sheeran’s new album is a rap song. This is not surprising given Sheeran’s fondness for hip-hop; the versatile English singer-songwriter used to sing hooks for grime rappers before he hit it big and has been known to convert trap hits into cutesy dorm-room sing-alongs. “Don’t,” one of the biggest hits from his 2014 blockbuster x, was essentially pop-rap with an acoustic guitar. Yet it’s still startling to hear this doughy four-eyed ginger spit — doubly so when those bars are the entry point for his latest MOR magnum opus. We’re a long way from “The A Team,” the goopy ballad that became Sheeran’s first hit in 2011.
The studio version of “Eraser” isn’t online yet, but you can get the gist from a solo acoustic version Sheeran performed for the online video channel SBTV. Like all of his songs, it’s both hyper-specific and unrelentingly polished, filtering anecdotes from his life into a catchy, easily digestible package via years of hard-won songwriting expertise and several layers of industry vetting. One of those story-of-my-life epics, the track is defiant and sentimental and self-congratulatory all at once: so basically a Drake song as performed at open mic night with a British accent.
Sheeran has long been associated with Taylor Swift, the superstar whose endorsement and friendship helped him ascend from “The A Team” to the A-list. They duetted on Swift’s Red hit “Everything Has Changed” and toured together in 2013, positioning Sheeran to sell 14 million copies of x worldwide. And in a much-discussed GQ interview last month — the one where he put himself in the same class as Beyoncé and Jay Z and publicly aspired to outsell Adele (which got him accused of being cocky but doesn’t seem that crazy for someone whose last album sold 14 million copies) — he declared, “Look at Taylor; she’s exactly like me. Taylor is someone who was put down for the whole of her teenage years and now she’s got the opportunity to win and she’s constantly winning.”
The parallels Sheeran sees between himself and Swift are real enough, but he may have even more in common with Drake, which makes sense considering Drake and Swift have plenty in common themselves. Hear me out here: When Drake was first breaking out, the idea of a weepy half-Jewish Canadian teen soap opera actor who sings his own hooks becoming rap’s center of gravity seemed preposterous — until he went and did it, not just transforming hip-hop but building an intersectional audience so massive that he’s also flirted with becoming pop’s center of gravity at times.
Drake’s smart songwriting acumen heavily contributed to his rise; hit songs have a way of drowning out the jeers. He also benefitted from spotting trends early enough in their public gestation period to make them his own. Whereas many major-label rap albums have been sunk by meddling executives who insisted on including a song for every demographic (one for the streets, one for the club, one for the ladies, etc.), Drake naturally gravitated to a diverse palette of sounds yet bent each subgenre to fit his personal aesthetic. No matter which style he attempts, it always sounds like Drake because it is beholden to his personality and taste. He is his own A&R and his own integration point.
Sheeran, too, was a hard sell at first. Here was this pudgy, scraggly troubadour dweeb slinging gentle acoustic singsong at the height of EDM, a time when even folk-rock was howling and stomping at maximum volume courtesy of Mumford And Sons. There’s always a market for sensitive guy-with-guitar fare, but there’s also plenty of competition in that field, and Sheeran didn’t exactly look the part. Plus the most remarkable element he brought to the table, a one-man live show in which he builds worlds of sound with just a guitar and some loop pedals, didn’t even translate to his records. (Sheeran wasn’t the first to do this — just ask Howie Day, the singer-songwriter behind 2004’s inescapable “Collide” — but he’s definitely the first person to sell out London’s 90,000-capacity Wembley Stadium doing it.)
No one would have pegged a man often mistaken for a hobbit as the next king of pop, yet that’s exactly what Sheeran became. Having established his singer-songwriter bona fides with “The A Team” and “Everything Has Changed,” on x (pronounced “multiply”) he expanded in every direction: scoring his biggest hit with the soulful soft-rocker “Thinking Out Loud,” further excavating his rap DNA on “Don’t,” and incorporating Pharrell-produced dance-pop track “Sing” into his arsenal, all while continuing to kick out folk-rock ballads like “Photograph.” As with Drake, these disparate strands were unified by Sheeran’s distinct point of view and broad populist appeal. “Sing” seemed odd upon arrival, but it came to feel normal, a natural extension of Sheeran’s personal sensibility. At a time when listeners are more likely to be fans of a particular artist than a particular genre, a hitmaker of Sheeran’s magnitude has carte blanche. He himself is the draw.
On ÷ (pronounced “divide”), out tomorrow, Sheeran uses that privilege to keep expanding his aesthetic range. The album never sounds anything less than poppy, but its approachability manifests in many ways. From “Eraser” we move on to “Castle On The Hill,” Sheeran’s U2-style anthem about his Suffolk hometown. Then comes “Dive,” a passionately howled retro love song with shades of John Mayer. “Shape Of You,” the #1 song in America, is up next. You could call it problematic for several reasons, be it icky possessive lyrics like “Your love was handmade for somebody like me” or the way it further whitewashes the fake dancehall sound that has dominated pop’s recent history. But it’s also Sheeran’s most successful dabbling in the dance-pop realm, building a fluid and irresistible banger on his trusty acoustic bedrock.
There is much more vacillation where that came from. A couple tracks later, “Galway Girl” flips one of Sheeran’s rap excursions into a traditional Irish jig, which is… really something! The deluxe edition bonus tracks “Barcelona” and “Bibia Be Ye Ye” could double as a Shakira hit and one of Paul Simon’s African pop hybrids respectively. There is even a trace of Radiohead, or at least Coldplay’s idea of Radiohead, on proper album closer “Supermarket Flowers.” The through line for it all is straitlaced, emotional adult contemporary, a well ÷ returns to with increasing frequency. Sheeran touts “Perfect,” a waltzing tribute to his hometown girlfriend Cherry Seaborn, as the best song he’s ever written, though IMO the real successor to “Thinking Out Loud” is the gorgeously shuffling whitebread love ballad “How Would You Feel (Paean),” one of those offensively inoffensive songs that will worm its way into your heart if you’re enough of a softie.
All these flavors comprise Sheeran’s manifold vision of the modern pop star — that is, they seem to represent his honest sense of what’s awesome — but they’re also carefully calculated advances toward the many demographics in his coalition. To me the biggest takeaway from the GQ feature was not Sheeran’s braggadocio but his keen interest in analytics. The piece begins, “When Ed Sheeran wakes up in the morning he checks his sales figures on a laptop. Why is he not selling as many albums in France as he does in Germany? Who should he call about it? Does he need to do a TV show or a gig there?” Later, we’re told, “Sheeran has been playing the numbers game since the very beginning; it’s just that the numbers keep getting bigger.”
The feature presents even Sheeran’s creative quirks as canny marketing schemes. His label objected at first to the “What Do I Know?” lyric “Everybody’s talking about exponential growth” until he pointed out how memorable it was. And he fought to keep “Galway Girl,” the song with the traditional Irish folk elements, on the album because it would appeal to Irish people and wannabe Irish people worldwide:
It is the perfect demonstration of how his mind works: he admitted that Irish folk music “isn’t the coolest thing,” as his label feared, but told them it that it was going to be “fucking massive” because there are 400 million people in the world who will say they are Irish even if they aren’t. For Sheeran, there is no conflict between the demands of creativity and commerce. They are, in every way, in perfect harmony.
That notorious Chainsmokers profile in Billboard last year painted the EDM-lite duo as music’s first tech bros, marking them as not just gifted songwriters but smart opportunists who “know every metric” about their music. Such a meticulous approach may turn out to be not aberration but the future of pop. How could it not be, given the success of those whose creativity is guided by algorithms as much as rhythms? It only makes sense that with the public increasingly consuming music through stat-driven streaming services, the musicians themselves would optimize as well. Sheeran is playing that sort of musical Moneyball, and in his own chosen terms, he keeps on winning.
Future scores his fourth (and fourth consecutive) #1 album this week. By next week, he’ll likely have his fifth. While we await the official stats on HNDRXX, we do know his self-titled set accumulated 140,000 equivalent units, only 60,000 of them from traditional album sales. Up next, spending its fourth nonconsecutive week at #2, is Bruno Mars’ 24K Magic; Billboard reports that’s the first album since Andrea Bocelli’s My Christmas in 2009 to spend so many weeks at #2 without going #1. At 3-4-5-6 are the Fifty Shades Darker soundtrack and recent chart-toppers by the Weeknd, Migos, and Big Sean respectively.
Charlie Wilson debuts at #7 with 48,000 units for In It To Win It, his fourth top-10 album. Then comes Ryan Adams at #8 with 45,000 units for Prisoner, his fifth. Alison Krauss’ Windy City, her fourth top-10 debut, follows with a #9 start via 38,000 units. And the Trolls soundtrack closes us out at #10.
As noted above, Ed Sheeran’s “Shape Of You” remains #1 on the Hot 100 for a fifth nonconsecutive week. Migos and Lil Uzi Vert’s “Bad And Boujee” hops back up to #2, knocking Zayn and Taylor Swift’s “I Don’t Wanna Live Forever (Fifty Shades Darker)” back down to #3. Up three spots to #4 is “That’s What I Like” by Bruno Mars, who now matches Rihanna with 13 top-5 hits this decade, says Billboard. And speaking of top-5 records, with “Closer” at #5 this week, the Chainsmokers and Halsey extend their own record with 27 weeks in the top 5.
The Chainsmokers are also at #6 with “Paris,” a new peak for the track. (Their Coldplay collab “Something Just Like This” also enters the chart at #56.) Rihanna’s “Love On The Brain” also hits a new high this week at #7, while Katy Perry and Skip Marley’s “Chained To The Rhythm” slides to #8. At #9 is Big Sean’s “Bounce Back”; at #10 is Machine Gun Kelly and Camila Cabello’s “Bad Things.” And notably, in its first full week of tracking, Kygo and Selena Gomez’s “It Ain’t Me” rockets from #93 to #12, so expect to see it in the top 10 soon.
Calvin Harris – “Slide” (Feat. Frank Ocean & Migos)
Shut it down. This is 2017’s song of the summer…
Lorde – “Green Light”
…unless this is 2017’s song of the summer? What an embarrassment of riches this week!
Meghan Trainor – “I’m A Lady”
Welp, they can’t all be Song Of The Summer contenders.
Jason Derulo – “Swalla” (Feat. Nicki Minaj & Ty Dolla $ign)
A fairly mediocre dance-pop track like “Swalla” helps you see how much each individual pop star brings to the table. Derulo’s contributions are strictly pedestrian, but when Ty$ and Nicki show up they exude a charisma that briefly elevates the proceedings.
John Mayer – “Emoji Of A Wave”
I only included this song because it’s called “Emoji Of A Wave” and I wanted you all to know such a song exists.
NEWS IN BRIEF
- “Best American Record,” reportedly the title track to Lana Del Rey’s new album, leaked online. [Nylon]
- Taylor Swift applied for trademarks for the words Swiftie and Swifties. [Trademark Ninja]
- The Voice coaches Alicia Keys, Adam Levine, Gwen Stefani, and Blake Shelton covered TLC’s “Waterfalls.” [YouTube]
- Paula Patton accused ex-husband Robin Thicke of evidence tampering in their ongoing custody dispute. [UPI]
- 2 Chainz fired a bunch of managers from his Escobar Restaurant And Tapas after the place scored a 59 out of 100 with the Georgia Department Of Public Health. [TMZ]
- John Legend’s Twitter account was briefly hacked. [Imgur]
- The upcoming Lifetime biopic Michael Jackson: Searching For Neverland has cast the pop star’s former real life “decoy,” MJ impersonator Navi, in the lead role. [ET]
- During the Oscars, Lady Gaga and Revlon launched The Love Project in a PSA with Pharrell and Ellen DeGeneres. [Twitter]
- Nicki Minaj teased an upcoming video with Future. [Instagram]
- Ed Sheeran, Jimmy Fallon, and the Roots did “Shape Of You” with classroom instruments. [YouTube]
- Little Mix and Machine Gun Kelly with Camila Cabello will perform at this year’s Nickelodeon Kids’ Choice Awards on Saturday. [E!]
- But first, Cabello hit the studio with Pharrell. [Instagram]
- Halsey invited 100 London fans to hear some of her new songs. [Twitter]
- Fifth Harmony’s Normani Kordei will compete on season 24 of Dancing With The Stars. [People]
- Avril Lavigne’s new album will be ready “soon,” but she hasn’t chosen a producer yet. [Billboard]
- “Before rumors or falsifications get out of hand,” Katy Perry and Orlando Bloom’s reps announced in a joint statement, “we can confirm that Orlando and Katy are taking respectful, loving space at this time.” [People]
- Silento is barred from leaving United Arab Emirates until his business dispute there is settled. [Miami Herald]
HOLD ON, WE’RE GOING HOME
legally blonde (2001) pic.twitter.com/DcwUEaht1C
— selfiet (@tylerfbradley) February 28, 2017