Ben Watts

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August 19, 2014 at 04:00 AM EDT

When you’re a sweet, talented redhead who’s as cute as a Muppet, you’ve gotta play to your strengths. Ed Sheeran knows that. On his Grammy-nominated debut, +, the British singer-songwriter nailed the part of the squishy-hearted romantic who’ll do anything not to get friend-zoned. But he must’ve learned something from Taylor Swift, who tapped him to open for her Red tour last year, because on x (pronounced ”multiply”), he’s finally getting angry, taking aim at a pop-star girlfriend who slept with another guy: ”It’s not like we were both on tour,” he sings on the refreshingly blunt bass-and-drums-driven ”Don’t.” ”We were staying on the same f—ing hotel floor.” Oof.

Sheeran doesn’t name names, but knowing that ”Don’t” could be about famous rumored exes Ellie Goulding or Selena Gomez underlies how his image has changed. He’s a big star now with a hit single — the white-boy-funky ”Sing” — and he’s not that innocent anymore. Working with producers Rick Rubin and Pharrell Williams, who bring out a bluesier, broodier side of his folk-pop, he’s dropping F-bombs, admitting to ”smoking illegal weed” — even flirting with rap on a few tracks, including ”The Man,” a heartfelt rant about love and fame that recalls U.K. garage act the Streets. These little rebellions don’t make him edgy, but they feel more honest than the gooey, light-of-a-thousand-stars ballads he’s known for. (See also: ”Tenerife Sea,” on which he gushes over the way a girl does her hair.) Don’t worry if you prefer the kinder, gentler Sheeran, though: The fact that he needs to remind us that weed is ”illegal” suggests that he’s still a good boy after all. B

Best Tracks:
”Don’t”
”Sing”

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