Will We Finally Get to Know the Real Ed Sheeran?

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You know Ed Sheeran.

The British singer-songwriter first began his domination of American pop radio in 2013 with “The A Team,” which spent more than half a year on the Billboard Hot 100 — only a hint of how his music would eventually slither into every crevice of your life.

Last year, Sheeran unprecedentedly released two singles in one day: “Shape of You” and “Castle on the Hill.” The former became his first single to debut at No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100, the latter checking in at No. 6; with the double release Sheeran became the first artist to have two singles simultaneously debut in the Top 10. “Shape of You” broke the Spotify record for most streams in one day (10 million), eventually moving on to dethrone Drake’s “One Dance” as Spotify’s most-streamed song ever at the time (1.3 billion).

You know Ed Sheeran because you hear Ed Sheeran nonstop, but you don’t hear a lot about Ed Sheeran. His relationships stayed out of the media for the most part until he proposed to his longtime girlfriend Cherry Seaborn last month. His three studio albums all have difficult-to-publish titles like “+” (pronounced “plus”), “×” (pronounced “multiply”), and “÷” (pronounced “divide”). If he chose these titles intentionally to deter the press, it worked.

When Sheeran first began recording music and amassing a fanbase while living on the street and playing in subway stations, critics and fans alike applauded him for not conforming to the ideals of today’s mainstream pop. But with every subsequent album release and chart-topping single, that’s become less and less true. His success puts the music critics in a conundrum: How can you attack an artist for selling out when he’s selling so well? No one will believe what you write if they even care enough to read it, and thus it becomes radio silence for critics and radio domination for Sheeran.

You also know Ed Sheeran based on his pop music achievements. He won two awards at the 2017 Grammys without even showing up that night. His singles like “Photograph” (2014), “Thinking Out Loud” (2014), and “Perfect” (2017) provide first-dance music for weddings everywhere; their radio popularity over the past four years is nearly unmatched. But it’s easy to listen to these cheesy, created-by-the-pop-machine, money-making, award-winning songs and accept Sheeran’s commercial success while discrediting him as an artist. The fact that he catapulted into fame thanks to Taylor Swift, who collaborated with him on a track in 2012 when he was virtually unknown and then invited him to open for her 2013 tour, doesn’t help matters. Similar to Sheeran, Swift is also thought of as having limited musical talent while simultaneously selling out back-to-back-to-back stadium shows.

As an artist who started his musical career playing street corners, subway stations, and, eventually, the London underground music scene, Sheeran’s songs are designed to be heard live. He crafted music that would attract the sort of attention needed to lift him off of friends’ sofas and park benches and onto the biggest music stages in the world. These songs are bigger than the subway station, the 200-person Barfly in Camden, and even the airwaves. They fill stadiums, much to the confusion of anyone who views him as simply a pop radio phenom.

In the forward of his autobiography, Sheeran wrote, “I’ve worked hard to focus my sound and style to a point where it was just me being me, and not me striving to be anyone else.”

Unfortunately for Sheeran, this sound and style have become everything people hate about pop music — contrived, overplayed, and annoyingly successful. His grandmother’s dying wish was that he and his brother Matthew Sheeran, a classical composer, would make a song together; Matthew scoffed at the idea of being a part of Sheeran’s pop world.

Their song, “Perfect,” is now certified 4x Platinum in the US.

With that amount of pure pop success, it’s hard to imagine Sheeran deviating from his path of loading each and every album with sure-to-be-radio-hits, sprinkled with only a few genre-benders and more personal tracks. But it turns out, he’s going to try and prove to us that we don’t know him as well as we thought we did. Recently on the George Ezra & Friends podcast, Sheeran announced that his next album won’t be a pop album at all.

“They’re going to be like ‘[the next record] has to be bigger than ‘Shape of You’ and it has to sell more than this’ … But if I control it and go, ‘Here’s a lo-fi record that I really f—ing love,’ my fans are gonna be like, ‘Yay!’ And the pop world are gonna be like, ‘Oh well, maybe the next one,’” he said.

With so much commercial success already, Sheeran’s at the point in his career where he can afford a risk like this. By going back to his roots, he can show his original fans that the Ed Sheeran they used to know is still in there, while also showing new fans he’s picked up along the way that the Ed Sheeran that they thought they knew isn’t the real Ed Sheeran at all.

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