To many, Ed Sheeran is simply an adorkable British ginger who moonlights as Taylor Swift’s BFF in both song (her mega-hit “Everything Has Changed”) and in real life (this Drake-themed needlepoint). But before opening for T-Swizzle—and giving his career and reputation a boost, especially in the U.S.—the 23-year-old was already carving out a solid career as a sensitive acoustic sprite with a penchant for hip-hop and R&B. Before he had a record deal, Sheeran collaborated on songs with U.K. grime artists Wiley and Devlin, and he and Alabama rapper Yelawolf released an EP together (2012’s The Slumdon Bridge).
The genre hybridization was hardly a token or calculated gesture, however; Sheeran’s lyrical grit and soulful slam-poet delivery made him a natural to dabble in hip-hop. He puts even more emphasis on this influence throughout X (pronounced “multiply”), his second full-length. Thanks to an assist from Pharrell Williams, “Sing” finds Sheeran slipping into Timberlake-style pop gigolo mode, while “Don’t” is a slinky, late-’90s R&B kiss-off. Elsewhere, the combination of Rudimental and members of Snow Patrol produces the excellent electro-folk brood “Bloodstream,” while the relationship lament “Nina” extracts a placid piano melody from U.K. rapper Wretch 32’s “Welcome To My World” and twists it into a plaintive melodic hook. Wisely, Sheeran balances this slicker sound with plenty of weak-kneed falsetto and fragile acoustic pop, as heard on “One” and “I’m A Mess.”
Unlike other creative evolutions, X’s fuller production and stabs at Top 40 rarely feel forced. Only the hookup-obsessed “Sing” feels like an awkward misstep—and that’s because Sheeran isn’t the kind of artist who mindlessly glorifies surface pleasures. In fact, he’s more likely to dissect the consequences of such hedonism or lament his indulgences. On “The Man,” he mourns a previous relationship—“The irony is if my career and music didn’t exist / In six years, yeah, you’d probably be my wife with a kid”—but also wonders if trading this stability for success was the right decision, especially because he’s worried about numbing his pain with booze and spliffs. This trenchant self-awareness extends to the rest of X’s lyrics, which tackle things such as fleeing from a rough home situation (“Runaway”), being cheated on (“Don’t”), and homesickness (“Photograph”) through the casual lens of a twentysomething dude.
But tellingly, the weakest song on X is “Thinking Out Loud,” a cloying, John Mayer-lite tune written with his long-time songwriting partner Amy Wadge. Although Sheeran has managed to preserve quite a bit about his musical roots, this song implies that he’s nearly outgrown this particular collaboration. It’s one of few minor lapses on an otherwise solid pop album, on which Sheeran acknowledges that growing up is messy and tough—but affirms that navigating life with maturity and confidence is possible.