Rap gets romantic: Sheeran combines old and new with “X”

The more things stay the same, the more they seem to change on Ed Sheeran’s second studio album ‘x.’ The feisty Brit – known as much for his fiery red hair as his angelic vocal chords – crooned his way into a million teenage girls’ hearts on his first album, ‘+,’ with tracks like “Give me Love” and “The A Team.” And while ‘x’ (pronounced “multiply”), builds on this familiar sound, a revamped Sheeran is also unveiled – one whose quick-fire raps and rhymes are nothing short of addicting.

Pushing play for the first time on ‘x,’ the song “One” invades listeners’ ear buds with the classic Sheeran equation of acoustic guitar, falsetto and the requisite amount of romantic angst. It’s lovely, but typical.

Take a few more turns on the tape however, and the likes of “Sing” and “Don’t” put a rather abrupt stop to all the tender melodies and soothing harmonies we’ve come to expect of an Ed Sheeran song. As the first single of the album, “Sing,” is almost everything Sheeran isn’t. It’s up-tempo, a serious mix of R&B and reggae and production credits are due to no less than Pharrell Williams. But the upbeat song about meeting a girl at a party and sharing some tequila is undoubtedly Sheeran, albeit a little-known iteration of the guitar-wielding ginger. Over the course of ‘x’ that persona will become more and more familiar, until it’s easy to wonder why he wasn’t around before.

A native of Halifax, England, Sheeran began playing guitar at a young age, composing his own songs soon after. At 14 he headed to London with not much more than his guitar to pursue a music career. Sheeran floated around the London music scene for a few years, playing shows and recording EPs until coming to the US in 2011 when singer/producer Jamie Foxx invited Sheeran to appear on his Sirius radio show.

From there Sheeran’s career took a fairy tale-like leap into the big leagues of the music business. ‘+’ quickly topped the charts in the UK and US, scoring him writing gigs with fellow Brits One Direction and a prime spot opening for Taylor Swift on her 2013 “Red” Tour. With the release of ‘x’ and its mainstream success, it was only a matter of time before Sheeran ascended to his rightful place among the pop star elite.

But the plaid shirt-wearing, arm tattoo-sporting, spikey-haired red head is not your typical rock star, a fact he is quick to point out with many of his lyrics. “I’m never having a stylist giving me tight jeans/Madison Square Garden is where I might be/But more likely you find me in the back room of a dive bar with my mates” he spews on the tenth track of the album, “Take It Back.” But even this song, which almost solely relies on Sheeran’s newfound rapping abilities, has him admitting that he’s “not a rapper I’m a singer with a flow,” an accurate classification if there ever was one for this new persona revamping the old stand-by we thought we knew.

But that stand-by hasn’t totally disappeared. In fact he resurfaces even stronger than before in songs like “Photograph,” “Afire Love” and most notably “Thinking Out Loud.” These three tracks in particular find Sheeran at his highly vulnerable-best, softly entrancing us with that dreamy voice once again.

For all its fast-rhyming, starry-eyed phrasing and expert guitar-picking, ‘x’ can feel a bit disjointed. Rapping and ballads don’t always make the best bedfellows after all. The album reads more like a resume of the singer’s many talents than a cohesive stylistic effort, but it’s almost more enjoyable because of the diversity.

In a way that disjointed charm depicts who Sheeran himself is to a T – a singer/rapper/rock star/regular dude who loves making music that just happens to be loved by millions.

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