Even with mainstream success secured, Ed Sheeran isn’t afraid to continue exploring what it means to be a “pop star” in today’s musical environment. Comfortable in his role as pop-folk-funk singer-songwriter/multi-hyphenate, Sheeran has sold an astonishing number of records, bucking the Auto-Tune trend of modern pop. His fanbase was built on hard work and a certain wholesome appeal, his acoustic guitar sensitive to the needs and wants of women the world over.
Sheeran’s also the type of star who knows how to reach fans not only through festivals and concerts but television and social media as well. Likely resulting in a boost in sales and popularity was his participation in a documentary on the making of his latest work, X (pronounced “multiply”), called Nine Days and Nights of Ed Sheeran, which currently airs on DirecTV, as well as appearances on episodes of programs like Live from the Artist’s Den. He’s also made excellent use of his personal YouTube channel.
From busking on street corners to selling out Madison Square Garden, Sheeran’s easy appeal across all spectrums of entertainment carries over onto X, an earnest and soulful second showing that makes a strong argument for nice-guy popsters everywhere.
Clearly inspired by rap and R&B elements, X is quite a departure from Sheeran’s prior album, + (pronounced “plus”), which was more chick-lit than gangsta rap. Taking a page from Jason Mraz‘s book, Sheeran puts his rapping skills to the test on several tracks, “Man” being just one prime example. But even when Sheeran returns to his recognizable tenor, rap’s influence on his delivery is obvious: he plays with his timing and rhythm, expertly cramming additional syllables into lines in a way that resembles Beat poetry. Whether or not you’re a fan of his spoken word abilities, it’s admittedly refreshing to see a British songwriter establish himself as more than just pale, sad guy with a tear-stained diary and a guitar. Witty lyricism and rich vocals of the slow-jam tradition paint a different portrait of Sheeran than we’ve seen before, and it’s not a bad thing.
Beyond exploring a broader range of musical styles, Sheeran also takes his songwriting to deeper, darker places on X. Revealing his own struggles with substance abuse, family trauma, and heartbreaking infidelity, he dipped into almost every conceivable emotional state while crafting these new tracks. Wordy at times, each second of every track is packed with syllables and emotion. Ed Sheeran has a lot of feelings, and it can get overwhelming for the casual listener. But shifting from sensitive balladeer to rhyme-slinging MC on one album is a lofty feat, and Sheeran manages to pull it off with remarkable grace.
X‘s lead single, “Sing”, a team effort with music’s current golden child Pharrell Williams, is a catchy, up-tempo dance track. Not originally meant for this album, it was included at the urging of one of Sheeran’s mentors, Elton John. It gifted him an obvious radio hit, in the vein of swaggering white-soul players Justin Timberlake and Robin Thicke. Psy, the K-pop crossover star, has done a remix. While Sheeran may be the folkiest man in pop right now, he isn’t too shy to experiment and test the limits of his sound and storytelling.
Poised to debut at number one on American charts, X has already become the most-streamed album of all time on Spotify in the UK. In just one week the album streamed 6,248,130 times, beating the record previously set by Daft Punk with their album Random Access Memories (6,181,583 streams). After appearing at the Glastonbury Festival last weekend and performing several of his newest tracks, Sheeran’s numbers only continued to rise.
Pushing the boundaries of pop in a likeable, contemporary way, Sheeran’s work on X marks the spot and continues to build the young pop star’s impressive oeuvre.