Ed Sheeran Finally Becomes One With The Algorithm
The universe has been expanding for approximately 13.8 billion years, and ever since the advent of recorded sound, popular music has followed suit. New galaxies of sound are constantly springing up and spreading out, intermingling and morphing and exploding. An adventurous music fan is never bored. Yet this past decade the pop mainstream has exhibited an opposite trend, a sort of reverse Big Bang. Diverse expanses have been hurtling toward a centralized point and flattening into a single, all-consuming aesthetic. The eminent critic Craig Jenkins published the definitive text on this phenomenon in 2017, dubbing it “a conscious consolidation of the sonics of pop music” and lamenting, “It feels like market expansion by virtue of shrewd centrism, pop stars straining to prove that they can do everything everyone else can.”
By then, it was becoming evident that this would be the defining sound of ’10s pop, a synthesized stylistic jumble that accounts for the omnivorous listening habits of the streaming era but reduces sounds from across the FM dial to their lowest common denominator. It had been brewing for years, though, which is why I’ve spent the better part of the decade babbling about the so-called “monogenre.” In 2013, I was optimistic about how tastefully the trend could play out, citing Lorde’s “Royals,” an undefinable minimalist wonder that made its way from alternative rock radio to Top 40 and eventually rap and R&B stations. And although distilling a wide range of sounds into a seamless composite has come naturally to a number of mostly younger artists (most recently Billie Eilish), the prevailing aesthetic has become oppressively bright, loud, and sterile.
It’s true that large swaths of the mainstream have always been devoted to funneling trendy ingredients into high-fructose microwave dinners, and that to some extent we’re currently just seeing an accelerated version of a phenomenon that has always existed. But perhaps more than ever, pop’s current game plan involves finding exciting new ways to be dull. I’m talking Lil Wayne hopping on a shiny chrome Imagine Dragons remix. I’m talking pop-R&B soft serve specialist Khalid plunging into the deepest beige alongside pop-country rising star Kane Brown. I’m talking Panic! At The Disco belter Brendon Urie aggressively parachuting into a pastel Taylor Swift lark involving the lyrics, “Hey kids, spelling is fun!”
This new form of easy listening is essentially Times Square’s overwhelming array of moving video screens become audio: a proudly overbearing centralized intersection beloved only by people with the worst taste imaginable. You know how millennials are allegedly killing chain restaurants like Applebee’s and T.G.I. Fridays, only to replace them with essentially the same thing shrouded in evolved hipster branding? How corporate America has reduced the craft brewing revolution to endless shelves of indistinguishable IPAs? How Netflix’s creative team took us from TV’s auteur era to an infinite supply of mediocre to satisfactory content on-demand? This is what has become of pop on the precipice of the 2020s.
Few have navigated this wasteland better than Ed Sheeran. In 2014, when the British singer-songwriter opted to subvert his image as a sensitive balladeer on the funky, Pharrell-produced “Sing,” I thought he was out of his mind. Time has proven me wrong, never mind that the straitlaced, sentimental “Thinking Out Loud,” not “Sing,” is the song that became Sheeran’s first American #1. “Sing” itself was a rightful flop — a genuine turd, that one — but in terms of career trajectory, Sheeran was making a savvy move toward the center of our post-genre landscape. That same x album cycle, in a more successful version of the same experiment, he hit the top 10 with “Don’t,” a jaunty acoustic pop tune infused with hip-hop bounce by Rick Rubin and Benny Blanco, featuring verses in which Sheeran was basically sing-rapping.
By 2017 he was just plain spitting, both on Swift’s “End Game” (alongside Future, no less) and on the opening track to his own album. That project, ÷, found him further hybridizing his style. The U2-inspired arena rocker “Castle On The Hill,” the hip-hop-inflected Irish jig “Galway Girl,” the aforementioned guitar-rap exercise “Eraser,” the resoundingly successful gentrified dancehall annoyance “Shape Of You”: all of it somehow made sense within the same context as the tender love ballad “How Would You Feel (Paean),” the bluesy and Mayer-esque “Dive,” the teary-eyed breakup song “Happier,” and the also resoundingly successful prom slow dance “Perfect.” Some of the songs were less objectionable than others, and all were insidiously catchy even at their corniest and most cloying — the sign of, if not a great artist, a talented pop craftsman. Most importantly, each track felt like an extension of the same monolithic force. Like most of this era’s biggest stars, Sheeran had learned to adapt his musical voice to just about any style.
Around the time ÷ dropped, Sheeran revealed how intentionally he had approached this endeavor. In an interview with GQ, he described his obsession with analytics, the way he used stats to engineer his career for maximum impact. Just as Spotify serves up personalized playlists based on user activity, Sheeran was applying the music-industry equivalent of baseball’s sabermetrics to optimize his career. Back then he was at least making this process feel like gleeful creative experimentation; he sounded like a person who truly enjoyed testing his limits. Whereas with his latest album, he may have finally completed his transformation into a human algorithm.
Like so much modern pop music, Sheeran’s new No.6 Collaborations Project is a fun idea that, in practice, becomes a rote exercise. The album is a sequel to 2011’s No. 5 Collaborations Project, an EP on which Sheeran teamed with a different UK rapper on every track, released months before his breakthrough single “The A Team.” In fact, the EP included “Little Lady,” an early version of “The A Team” with a grisly verse from Mikill Pane involving niece murder. If not particularly inspired, No. 5 Collaborations Project was at least scrappy and ambitious, and its existence is retroactive proof that Sheeran always had his sights set on something bigger than stadium-sized open mic night. He has pulled it off here, convening a disparate array of celebrities from across the pop spectrum. As a flex, it’s impressive.
But you know how sequels go. Even (especially?) with piles of money at your disposal, it’s hard to capture the magic of something you created away from the spotlight. It’s even more difficult when the original wasn’t all that magical in the first place. Song for song, No.6 is actually an improvement on No. 5 (and yes, Sheeran has removed the space after the period this time around, and yes, it annoys me to no end). The guest list is elite; the production is sleek and expensive; Sheeran has grown as a writer over the course of the decade. Yet its diverse stylistic turns feel more like brand expansions than bold creative experiments, and the lot of them blur into 50 minutes of muzak gloss.
It begins with “Beautiful People,” for which Sheeran has recruited Khalid, the young prince of today’s post-genre adult contemporary scene. A moody chord progression native to the post-Drake R&B landscape, a wide-open hip-hop beat, wispy melodic squiggles nicked from tropical house, a chorus of Auto-Tuned voices reverberating in the distance as if overheard from a festival-core rock band on an adjacent stage: Yep, you’ve stumbled into the kind of non-intrusive composite anthem No.6 Collaborations Project specializes in. “Beautiful People” is about maintaining groundedness, being yourself, and refusing to be subsumed into the world of vapid celebrity parties and fashion shows. Unfortunately, No.6 consistently resembles a soundtrack for that world. It’s toothless lifestyle music that sounds like it was created in a laboratory by a sensible, stable, not-at-all-mad scientist.
To wit: “South Of The Border,” which brings together Camila Cabello and Cardi B, is the “Shape Of You” sequel we all saw coming, vaguely fizzy and subtly punchy and inevitably stuck in your head to your eternal consternation. The chivalrous “Cross Me,” featuring Chance The Rapper and PnB Rock, is trap music for people who miss Flo Rida. The Justin Bieber duet “I Don’t Care,” a new entry in the increasingly popular subgenre of songs about leaving parties, pairs a walloping dancehall rhythm with one of Sheeran’s most effective folk-pop choruses to date while ironing out every last iota of quirk. Even at its best — and “I Don’t Care” was chosen as the lead single for a reason — the album is background music disguised as a center-stage event.
One of the more fascinating aspects of No.6 is the evolution of Sheeran’s ongoing love affair with hip-hop. Perhaps unsurprisingly, he sounds most natural on the grime banger “Take Me Back To London,” holding his own alongside Stormzy whether slinging hooks about dancing at raves or sing-rapping boasts about headlining Wembley Stadium. It’s the most purely enjoyable track on the album. The slinky “Nothing On You” with Paulo Londra and Dave is another graceful rap crossover move. More often, though, his hip-hop fixation results in tame Top 40 bait like the Travis Scott collab “Antisocial,” the Eminem/50 Cent summit “Remember The Name,” and the Meek Mill/A Boogie get-together “1000 Nights” — rap for people who aren’t really into rap. I’m sure those ones will go over well with the same folks who thought it was cute when Sheeran covered “Trap Queen” on acoustic guitar.
Although I’ve always found “The A Team” unbearably hokey, Sheeran tends to be at his least objectionable when he’s hawking pure unadulterated soft rock. If songs like “Thinking Out Loud” and “Perfect” lay it on thick, they’re also the ones where he successfully forges an emotional connection. In turn, the barebones ballad “The Best Part Of Me,” with rising Arkansas gospel singer Yebba, thrives by forgoing the project’s forced genre mishmash and scraping off the sonic lamination that suffocates so many of these tracks. On the other hand, Sheeran has been accused of plagiarizing other people’s songs more than once, and part of this one’s charm is its similarity to Sheryl Crow’s “Strong Enough.” And do I hear traces of 2Pac’s “Changes” — or its Bruce Hornsby source material — on the Ella Mai team-up “Put It All On Me”? That would help to explain why it’s so immediately ingratiating.
Neither track qualifies as outright thievery — and anyhow, recycling melodies and chord changes is an inevitable reality of pop songwriting, especially when your M.O. involves merging weeks of New Music Friday playlists into futuristic mall food court music. Again and again, Sheeran and his superstar accomplices have concocted audio recordings designed not for listening so much as consumption. Basically, they’ve put a thoroughly modern spin on a time-honored tradition: the flaccid pop hit you can blissfully ignore until it worms its way into your skull and refuses to budge. It’s disappointing coming from a guy who can clearly do anything he puts his mind to, but look on the bright side. He could have given us a whole album of “BLOW,” the Jackson Maine hard-rock blowout that ends No.6 Collaborations Project. Hearing Sheeran, Chris Stapleton, and Bruno Mars invite a love interest to “pull my trigger, let me blow your mind” over a skeezy Sunset Strip sendup is enough to make me wish the material universe would follow pop music’s lead and contract back into the quantum vacuum from whence it came.
The horse will not stop riding! “Old Town Road” is #1 for a 15th straight week, becoming one of only three songs to endure that long atop Billboard’s Hot 100. The other two — Mariah Carey and Boyz II Men’s “One Sweet Day” and Luis Fonsi & Daddy Yankee’s “Despacito” — held on one more week to set the current record at 16. Can Lil Nas X join them? Surpass them? We’ll find out in the coming weeks.
He’ll have stiff competition. Billie Eilish’s “Bad Guy,” which remains at #2, got a new remix with Justin Bieber late last week. We’ll see most of that remix’s impact on next week’s chart. However, Lil Nas X trotted out a new “Old Town Road” remix hours later featuring longtime partner-in-song Billy Ray Cyrus plus Young Thug and preteen yodel boy Mason Ramsey, which may offset any of Eilish’s gains.
Post Malone and Young Thug’s “Goodbyes,” meanwhile, debuts at #3. I wouldn’t be surprised if that’s the one that takes down “Old Toad Road” eventually. As Billboard reports, it’s Posty’s seventh top 10 single and Thugger’s second (following his turn on Camila Cabello’s #1 hit “Havana”). The rest of the top 10: Khalid’s “Talk” at #4, Shawn Mendes and Camila Cabello’s “Señorita” at #5, Ed Sheeran and Justin Bieber’s “I Don’t Care” at #6, Lizzo’s “Truth Hurts” at #7, Jonas Brothers’ “Sucker” at #8, Post Malone and Swae Lee’s “Sunflower” at #9, and DaBaby’s “Suge” at #10.
The action is not quite so momentous over on the Billboard 200 albums chart, but here goes: Billboard reports that Revenge Of The Dreamers III, the first fruits of J. Cole’s star-studded rap camp, debuts at #1 with 115,000 equivalent album units and 23,000 in sales. By comparison, 2015’s Revenge Of The Dreamers II peaked at #29 and 2014’s initial installment of the series did not chart. The latest Dreamers comp features dozens of artists, led by Cole and his Dreamville crew.
After Billie Eilish at #2, Chris Brown at #3, and Lil Nas X at #4 comes a #5 debut for Machine Gun Kelly’s Hotel Diablo. The album tallied 39,000 units/16,000 sales and is MGK’s fourth consecutive top 10 effort. As journalist and occasional Stereogum contributor Al Shipley points out, MGK is only the third Bad Boy Records artist to score four top 10 albums following Diddy and 112. The rest of the top 10 comprises Lizzo, Khalid, Post Malone, Mustard, and Jonas Brothers.
Lil Nas X & Billy Ray Cyrus – “Old Town Road (Remix)” (Feat. Young Thug & Mason Ramsey) // Billie Eilish & Justin Bieber – “Bad Guy”
Free agency is seriously so wild this offseason.
Charli XCX & Christine And The Queens – “Gone”
A jam, and surely no one expected anything less.
Alec Benjamin – “Jesus In LA”
Alec Benjamin says you won’t find Jesus in LA, but I am pretty sure dude is omnipresent. (In all seriousness, a pretty good song!)
Phoebe Ryan – “Build Me Up”
Ryan is one of those singers who take so many swings you just know one of them is going to connect. “Build Me Up” feels like it could be that song for her.
NEWS IN BRIEF
- Shawn Mendes and Camila Cabello are apparently a couple. [TMZ]
- In an Australian radio interview Katy Perry detailed how she ended her feud with Taylor Swift. [USA Today]
- Meanwhile Kelly Clarkson had some advice for Swift regarding her feud with Scooter Braun: “U should go in & re-record all the songs that U don’t own the masters on exactly how U did them but put brand new art & some kind of incentive so fans will no longer buy the old versions. I’d buy all of the new versions just to prove a point 💁🏼♀️” [Twitter]
- Post Malone announced the second annual Posty Fest, which will be 11/2 in Dallas. [Instagram]
- Everyone had to evacuate JLo’s MSG show when the power went out in NYC on Saturday night. [Twitter]
- Diddy is bringing Making The Band back to MTV. [Deadline]
- Iggy Azalea says her tour will have a twerkpit. [Twitter]
- Azalea is also in a cute “feud” with Peppa Pig. [Billboard]
- Beyoncé’s Homecoming documentary is nominated for six Emmys. [Emmys]
- DJ Snake’s Carte Blanche is out 7/26. [Twitter]
- Cardi B stars in a new Reebok commercial. [YouTube]
- Ken Ehrlich is stepping down as the Grammys telecast’s Executive Producer after 2020. [Billboard]
- Ellie Goulding and Juice WRLD released a video for “Hate Me.” [YouTube]
HOLD ON, WE’RE GOING HOME
This clip from the Fox show Beat Shazam is the bleakest thing on television. Darker than Euphoria or Chernobyl. I implore you to watch the entire clip pic.twitter.com/exocXvCaVg
— Mike Abrusci (@mikeabrusci) July 15, 2019