**1/2 (out of 4)
Busker-turned-pop superstar Ed Sheeran has spent years touring extensively with Taylor Swift, and the pairing couldn’t have been more fitting. On the English singer’s 2011 breakout “+,” Sheeran’s songs seemed tailor-made for teenage lovers—they sound like the artist’s audio journal entries about the hardships of breakups. This kind of music isn’t always a bad thing, but I’m sure I’m not alone in thinking Sheeran would benefit from turning down the quantity of cheesiness, no matter how marketable it might be.
On his sophomore album “X,” the 23-year-old singer mostly gets away from boring, clichéd narratives of troubled romance. He does this by turning down the schmaltz and turning up the attitude while embracing elements of R&B and rap. This is a surprising choice that, just as surprisingly, works very well for Sheeran. On the Pharrell-produced chart topper “Sing,” Sheeran keeps it light and funky, drawing easy comparisons to Justin Timberlake. On “Don’t,” he laments a two-timing girlfriend. These tracks, as well as the venomous-yet-fun “The Man,” are delights, depicting Sheeran in a new light and giving him a much-needed shot of respect as a writer and lyricist.
Believe it or not, he actually raps on many of the songs, including the eerie “Take It Back,” on which he questionably says, “I’m not a rapper, I’m a singer with a flow.” Unfortunately, Sheeran—who has previously showcased his talent performing with Lupe Fiasco and writing for One Direction and Swift—doesn’t entirely take to his new clothes. Between Rick Rubin-produced ballads (“Photograph”) and cheesy sing-alongs (“Afire Love”), this album is packed with groaners he should grow out of on his next record.
“X” remains a step in the right direction for Sheeran. But I’d prefer to hear him leap.
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