VIBE Summer 2014 Cover Story: Ed Sheeran
UK import Ed Sheeran has made ripples on both sides of the pond by tugging at heartstrings and guitar chords. But beneath the folk hero lies a hip-hop soul
STORY: John Kennedy | PHOTOS: Sarah McColgan
In a single-level house tucked away in the tangled backroads of Northeast Los Angeles, Ed Sheeran has an entire room in tears. Cradling his custom-made C.F. Martin & Co. guitar, the England-born singer strums some familiar notes, knocks on the golden-brown wood and begins reciting lyrics that are far from the heart-wringing brand of emo that’s made him a global star.
“I ride for the Gingers down for me,” the 23-year-old goof begins, saluting fellow redheads to the cadence of “My Nigga,” by YG. “Can’t go in the sun unless you’re wearing sun cream/Yeah, you know how it feel/My skin gon’ peel/But you know that shit is real, uh, yeah.” He’ll continue rhyming off the top about the importance of keeping to the shade, “motherfuckers with tans” and even drop a Buffy the Vampire Slayer reference in this impromptu acoustic performance, all while fighting back the laughter that’s already consumed his campfire audience made up of his manager and publicity team.
Sheeran usually saves his funny freestyles for a night of downing Jägerbombs—“It’s too much pressure. When you’re drunk, even if you go wrong people will say, he’s cool,” he shares—but on this beaming-hot May morning he’s simply killing the clock between looks at his first VIBE photo shoot. He’s diverting from his usual cavalier fashion choices, wearing gold-rimmed Ray-Bans and an unbuttoned, blue-and-black short-sleeved shirt with a white tee peeking out beneath. Along with street-hardened crooner August Alsina and illmatic singer Mack Wilds, Sheeran is being coronated as a flourishing force in R&B, which fits his own mission statement snuggly. The unassuming hotshot is already becoming a soulful Shrek of the top-40 charts, opening for his good friend Taylor Swift’s international 2013 Red tour, while his tender 2011 major label debut + has moved close to 2 million copies in the UK and chugged past the 500,000 mark in the States, a notable figure for a foreign act. He quickly sold out three consecutive shows at Madison Square Garden, a feat usually achieved by the likes of Justin Bieber or Jay-Z. His sweet, extra-sensitive serenades put fans all in their feelings; even Diddy, who once tweeted that “this kid makes me cry.”
With his sophomore album x (pronounced “multiply”), Ed’s looking past being pigeonholed as a folksy guitar hero with a golden voice. “Just because I’m a man with an acoustic guitar doesn’t mean I have to play love songs,” says Sheeran, who enlisted Pharrell, Benny Blanco, Jake Gosling and Johnny McDaid for his latest project. “I want to straddle all worlds at once. I want to do my acoustic stuff, write for the biggest pop acts in the world, and also work with all the rappers I like, underground or not.”
It’s not the most shocking aspiration, considering the groundwork that’s already been laid. Beyond today’s ratchet rap karaoke (Ed will cover everything from Ty Dolla $ign’s “Paranoid” to Biggie’s vulgar “One More Chance,” in a Lucky Charms accent), Sheeran teamed with Yelawolf for 2012’s four-track The Slumdon Bridge project, has dropped hooks for Lupe Fiasco (“Old School Love”) and Rockie Fresh and raised eyebrows earlier this year when he announced that he’s partnering with The Game on a full-length project. Rick Rubin, who put the final production sheen on x, feels Sheeran can bounce between genres on his own terms. “He’s a remarkable singer,” Rubin writes via email. “The Ed Sheeran version of R&B and hip-hop sounds exciting to me. If he tries to fit in he will be less interesting.”
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