Five Burning Questions: Ed Sheeran’s ‘Equals’ Debuts at No. 1 on the Billboard 200

1. Equals debuts at No. 1 on the Billboard 200 with 118,000 equivalent album units moved — obviously a great number for an average pop artist, but down about 47% from the first-week performance of 2019’s No.1 Collaborations Project set, and about 282% from that of his most recent non-collaborative album, 2017’s Divide. If you’re Ed Sheeran, how excited are you about this debut, on a scale from 1-10? 

Rania Aniftos: Six. I’d feel torn. Of course, I’d be thrilled that the album topped the Billboard 200 with good numbers, but I’d wonder what I could do differently in the social media/TikTok age to capture the attention of Gen-Z, who might not connect as much to his music compared to his older fans and probably led to the drop in numbers. At the same time, though, he might not even care. He’s Ed Sheeran. He’s doing just fine.

Lyndsey Havens: Eight. Yes, a 282% drop in consumption between 2017’s Divide and this year’s Equals is massive, but we’re also comparing two things that arrived over four years apart during which the listening landscape has largely shifted. The general consensus with most top-performing artists today seems to be, “Cool, they’re back on top — but with a worse first-week performance than last time. Are they over? Did they flop?” And we repeatedly see that to be not true. That said, I think dethroning Drake from the Billboard 200 — and scoring a No. 1 album just before Taylor Swift, Silk Sonic and Adele flood the chart — is something to be quite pleased with.

Gil Kaufman: Three. I’m bummed, TBH. If I’m Ed and I’m watching the world collectively lose their minds over the upcoming Adele album and then I see these numbers, I might wonder what’s going on. Sure, Sheerios are sopping up the album’s singles so far, but for an artist who’s talked about writing dozens of songs for this album and meticulously honing the tracklist down to the very best selections, this kind of downward trend has to sting a bit.

Jason Lipshutz: Four. Another No. 1 album with a six-digit equivalent albums unit debut, from an artist who’s been a star for roughly a decade, is nothing to sneeze and speaks to his longevity as an A-lister. That’s a significant drop-off from 2017’s Divide… but Divide had one of the biggest hits of the decade in “Shape of You.” “Excited” may not be the word to describe my reaction to this debut if I’m in Ed Sheehan, but considering the circumstances, there’s no reason to be shockingly disappointed, either.

Andrew Unterberger: Five. It’s pretty clear at this point that Divide (and “Shape of You”) specifically was his pop peak, a four-quadrant smash from a still relatively unlikely pop megastar that was just the write song/album at the right moment. He’s not likely to repeat that success again, and that might be for the best: His most natural form is as a singer-songwriter with a guitar, a loop pedal and an impressive connection with his audience. The sooner he’s able to shed his pop trappings (while maintaining his core following — 118k is still pretty solid!), the better for his long-term artistic health, which I have to imagine he’d at least partly agree with himself.

2. What do you think the biggest reason for Sheeran’s drop in numbers over his past two projects says more about — changes in the industry, or changes in Sheeran’s music and stardom?

Rania Aniftos: The main criticism I have about Equals is that it feels like the same ol’ Ed Sheeran. Nothing out of the ordinary lyrically and musically. I knew what the album was going to sound like before I even listened to it. In an era where there’s so much new music to consume and new artists are always popping up seemingly out of nowhere and sharing powerful messages in unique musical ways… Sheeran feels boring in comparison. I think listeners in 2021 are looking for more than the same old stuff, especially given that Sheeran has a whole discography of the aforementioned “same old stuff.” He can look to his friend Taylor Swift as inspiration: She’s been in the music scene for just as long as he has but is constantly switching up her sound while still staying true to who she is, hence her ability to stay exciting and actually break album sales records.

Lyndsey Havens: Well, I think they go hand in hand — at least for any successful pop star today. As the industry changes, so too do we often see the biggest names in music changing with it. Just listen to “Shape Of You,” Ed’s huge hit off Divide, and compare that sonically to a hit like “Bad Habits” from his latest project. And that’s not to say had Ed made more of the same that Equals would have collected a bigger first-week figure — and it’s worth noting there are classic Sheeran ballads on the new album — but my larger point is that things change and one of them happens to be, generally speaking, less earth-shattering first-week performances. But hey, I’m sure Adele will smash this point to smithereens.

Gil Kaufman: To be fair, Equals is a very tight, cleverly crafted suite of songs with bullseye-sharp lyrics about true (married) love, being a dad, losing a close friend and reminiscing about that time you played Wembley for the first time. (You remember what that feels like, right?). It feels weird to say it, but Ed might just be too nice a guy with a grown-ass-man perspective that could be out of touch? While Olivia Rodrigo is casually dropping f-bombs in hit singles and eviscerating her exes with lyrical daggers, it’s possible Sheeran’s lack of edge might feel quaint, or out of touch, to his young audience. Maybe his word darts make more sense to their parents now, but who knows if they even know how to turn on the music machine to stream/download the album?

Jason Lipshutz: Mostly changes in the industry — had a ticket bundle been attached to the chart debut of Equals, that first-week number may be far greater — but also changes in the type of release this is from Sheeran. The fact that Equals boasts two top 10 Hot 100 hits in “Bad Habits” and “Shivers” demonstrates that his mainstream stardom is very well intact — but simply put, neither of those songs is anywhere near as enormous as “Shape of You” was four years ago. And that’s fine! Another No. 1 album with multiple hits represents a positive outcome for Sheeran, even if it’s a drop-off from its solo predecessor.

Andrew Unterberger: It’s a natural comedown from a once-in-a-lifetime success, combined with pop music and the infrastructure surrounding it undergoing some pretty drastic changes in the nearly half-decade since. Back when Divide and “Shape” were conquering the world, streaming and radio were still largely speaking the same language and the latter could still mint a culture-ruling smash practically on its own — but now, the two formats have bifurcated, and streaming is far more important to overall consumption. And yeah, the recent elimination of ticket bundles for an artist whose sovereignty is still primarily in the live realm probably isn’t helping his numbers much either.

3. You wouldn’t predict any dip in Sheeran’s popularity from his current radio omnipresence, responsible in large part for propelling two of his official advance singles from Equals (“Bad Habits” and “Shivers”) to being steady Billboard Hot 100 top 10 hits. Why do you think he’s remained such such a pop radio fixture into the 2020s? 

Rania Aniftos: I know I was venting about how predictable Ed Sheeran can be in the previous question, but funny enough, that’s also what makes him so popular in the radio sphere. His voice is great and the songs are always safe, noncontroversial and so, so catchy. Sheeran has perfected the recipe for radio success to the point where, honestly, a radio exec could pick any song from Equals out of a hat and it would be an instant radio hit.

Lyndsey Havens: Revisiting an earlier point, I think Ed walks this fine line between evolving while remaining consistent. Listeners know what to expect from him — and he always delivers, while also injecting his lyrics about love and sometimes loss with whatever popular production is currently resonating.

Gil Kaufman: Name two other young male pop singers outside of Justin Bieber and Kid LAROi who could rival him at the moment? Now name two more who are so lyrically incisive and quick with a grabby hook? We know Ed is playing the long game — his album titles are proof enough. And judging by the way he vanishes between albums and, like Adele and Lorde, takes time to live life and stay out of our feeds every second when he’s not on cycle, his less is more — until it’s not — approach seems to help his singles pop when they drop. We can miss you if you go away.

Jason Lipshutz: It’s all about the hooks when it comes to Ed, who’s traipsed around different trends and shape-shifted the way he utilizes his voice since arriving with “The A Team” to move from tender acoustic singer-songwriting to weepy balladry, tropical-adjacent dance music and alternative-baiting pop-rock. The commonality across “Thinking Out Loud,” “Castle on the Hill” and “Bad Habits” is how damn catchy they all are — the man knows how to write a melody that will get stuck in your head and on the radio for weeks.

Andrew Unterberger: In a period of enormous flux, both for the culture and for pop music, radio has increasingly gravitated towards the known quantities. Therefore, most of the stars who defined pop in the ’10s — Ariana Grande, Justin Bieber, The Weeknd, Bruno Mars, Adele, and indeed, Sheeran — still see the red carpet rolled out for them whenever they resurface in the 20s. Plus, Sheeran has done a solid job of updating his core sound to reflect radio’s new defaults; out are the dancehall-derived beats and Mumfordy stomp-rock rushes, in are the cinematic ’80s productions and spiky alt-pop hooks.

4. Outside of those two big hits, what song from Equals do you find the most interesting and why? 

Rania Aniftos: “Sandman.” Ed Sheeran has kept his personal life quite private throughout his career, and doesn’t often say much about his wife or his daughter. “Sandman” is such an adorable glimpse into his life as a first-time, loving father – eloquently, and in his own words. It’s a lullaby that I would cherish forever if I were the child of a pop superstar with an angelic voice.

Lyndsey Havens: I think more than any one song resonating, I’m most interested in the ones in which Fred (of Fred again… fame) had some involvement, whether that be as a co-writer or co-producer. Tapping an artist like Fred supports my earlier point as well about Ed’s ability to adapt and expand his creative circles without ever moving too far away from the core artistic components that helped him become a star.

Gil Kaufman: I’m a sucker for “Visiting Hours” for a number of reasons. For one, the idea of heaven having visiting hours so that you can share your life updates with dead loved ones is about as clever as it gets. The heartbreak in Ed’s voice and the specificity of his wanting to soothe his anxieties by having a chat with a spectral friendtor (friend/mentor) is crushing and inspiring all at once. I also happen to have interviewed the person the song is about a number of times (late Australian promoter/record label head/legendarily hard-charging mensch Michael Gudinski) and every line rings true. Plus, the ability to transform your grief into song that quickly (about two weeks), effectively and elegantly is a true gift.

Jason Lipshutz: “Sandman” is a sweet lullaby for Sheeran’s daughter, and it’s not a stellar track, per se — but it does make me think that Sheeran would make a very good, very successful kids’ album if he ever wanted to. Ed, if you ever wanted to trade stadium tours for PBS, you’d be making Raffi money.

Andrew Unterberger: “Tides” is actually my favorite song of his in quite some time — he does surprisingly well shouting out the regrets and confusion that come with emotional maturity over guitar cacophony and insistent drum pounding. Here’s hoping No.7 Collaborations Project is just him getting together with some of his childhood chums in a garage rock band.

5. Now that Sheeran has exhausted four of the primary math symbols, what do you think his next non-collaborative studio album should be titled?

Rania AniftosPythagorean Theorem. C’mon Ed, let’s graduate to high school math.

Lyndsey Havens: Well, I believe we’re missing – (Minus), which will, of course, be where Ed wipes his entire discography from streaming platforms only to release it all as a multi-disc deluxe physical boxset that will reappear online weeks after it shatters physical sales records.

Gil Kaufman: Square root, duh. For his country album.

Jason Lipshutz: He’s conquered the math world — it’s language arts’ time to shine. Give me a nice semicolon or em-dash album as a shout-out to us grammar geeks out there, Ed!

Andrew Unterberger: If Sheeran’s not pleased with the critical response to this album, naming his next one after the quadratic formula would be a respectable middle finger to the folks writing about him.

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