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VIBE Summer 2014 Cover Story: Ed Sheeran

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Ed Sheeran is featured on the cover of VIBE's Summer 2014 issue.


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.”

CLICK THE ARROW ABOVE TO CONTINUE READING Ed Sheeran is featured on the cover of VIBE's Summer 2014 issue. Here he serenades some of his fans.“I can’t understand the concept of maple syrup on chicken,” Sheeran confesses, challenging the Bert and Ernie of American morning meals, chicken and waffles. The shoot has wrapped and he’s slipped into a secluded outside table at Cliff’s Edge restaurant in Silver Lake seemingly unnoticed for an early afternoon brunch. “I’ve tried it—I’ll try anything once. You have to go through life trying things out.” With pleases and thank yous, Ed orders a Diet Coke and breakfast sandwich and strips its buns; he gives away his fries. “I’ve been proper California [dieting] for the past month because I drank so much fucking beer and started doing these photo shoots again,” he says, forking a naked tomato, avocado, bacon and fried egg mound. “So I just cut out bread and potatoes.”

With x, Sheeran is shaping up for what could be his true breakthrough, the tipping point for becoming a household name. It’s a long way from his rural Framlingham, Suffolk hometown, where he grew up around farms and farm animals (“It’s where nice people go to retire,” he says). The youngest of two boys, Ed would climb trees and go to skate parks for fun. He began singing in choir at age 4 and later learned to play guitar, drums, bass, cello and violin. When he was 10, he bought his first guitar from a local department store called Argos for $50, and has since accumulated nearly 100 of them, scattered around the world in the homes of friends and family, including the vintage 1907 acoustic that lives in Malibu. “The older ones are easier to record with,” he says.

Ed’s maiden songs were about girls (duh) but much like his freestyle earlier today, they were merely words rhyming. By age 14, with a sharper pen, he’d recorded his first EP, The Orange Room, and began performing at local shows—just him, his guitar and a loop station. When he turned 16, he skipped university and moved out on his own to London to pursue music full-time, sofasurfing with friends, relatives, fellow musicians, promoters, fans, basically anyone with a couch. It’s here in the UK capital where his worldview vastly expanded; a gig at a homeless shelter inspired Sheeran’s first major single “The A-Team,” which tells the story of a drug-addicted prostitute. In 2010 he moved to Los Angeles, where he’d play at Jamie Foxx’s club The Foxxhole and wow Foxx so much that the actor/singer allowed him to record at his home studio and, of course, crash on his couch. Elton John’s Rocket Music Management quickly scooped him up. Sheeran’s self-released 2011 EP No. 5 Collaborations Project, assisted by his go-to producer Jake Gosling and grime rappers Devlin and JME (all of whom he met in London), sold 10,000 copies and effectively helped him ink a deal with Atlantic/Asylum Records.

Sheeran’s proper debut +, which features the bold “You Need Me, I Don't Need You,” was a shocking success. Now, after three years of touring and writing for One Direction and Taylor Swift, he shows his personal growth on x, with the intent to exponentially supersize the music, concepts, lyrics and venue sizes. The catchy, Pharrell-produced “Sing” soulfully challenges Justin Timberlake’s falsetto crown. He’s equal parts proud and self-depreciating on the dizzying rap bonus cut “Take It Back.” But x isn’t all sunny. “Last year was the best professionally, but the worst personally. At the end of the year, there was quite a lot of shit going on,” Sheeran says, possibly alluding to his fling with Ellie Goulding. “I’m a quiet, chill, happy guy, but everyone goes through dark times. I get rid of them by writing a song.”

That purging comes on “Don’t,” a scathing recall of an unfaithful (singer) ex, believed by many to be about the aforementioned UK starlet Goulding. He sings: “I never saw him as a threat/Until you disappeared with him to have sex, of course/It's not like we were both on tour/We were staying on the same fucking hotel floor.” Sheeran says he hasn’t spoken to the song’s subject since “Don’t” dropped. “I was planning to leave it [off] because it was therapeutic, but the more I listened back I thought this is an alright song,” he says. “I was so frustrated... I couldn’t not write that song.” Ed isn’t jaded, though. For hopeful romantics, there’s the enamored “Thinking Out Loud,” an instantly classic wedding-ready ballad he wrote in his kitchen in February, around the beginning of his blossoming relationship. He says his new non-celebrity love, who works in the culinary industry, helps keep him focused on the music. “My heart is in one place,” Sheeran says. “Different people click. You just need to find the right person.”

CLICK THE ARROW ABOVE TO CONTINUE READING VIBE's Summer 2014 cover features Ed Sheeran, Mack Wilds and August Alsina.The Game couldn’t believe his eyes last year when Ed Sheeran pulled up to his Compton recording studio from Hollywood—about 20 miles away—pedaling a bicycle. “I'm like, ‘Damn, one of the biggest stars in the world still rides a bike around,’” remembers the 34-year-old rapper of his introduction to Sheeran. They’d initially connected via Twitter in late 2012, after Ed praised Game’s Jesus Piece. Game downloaded + and, impressed, direct messaged his phone number. They linked to complete a skeleton of a song called “Heaven” and ended the session with six recorded tracks. “Everything Ed does—even scraps or demo things—all sounds amazing,” Game says. “Ed’s voice is just soothing.”

Sheeran has been attracted to hip-hop with heart since he was nine, when his uncle compared Eminem to Bob Dylan. Once he brought The Marshall Mathers LP—still his favorite album—Pandora’s rap jukebox opened wide, exposing everyone from Xzibit to LL Cool J to DMX. Ed’s Slim Shady stanning extended through freshman year at Thomas Mills High School in Framlingham, when he dressed up as Em’s semi-autobiographical 8 Mile character Rabbit on non-uniform day, dropping rhymes for anyone who’d would listen. In Game, he sees a similar ability to convey feelings through music. “Give him an emotional song and everything he says will tug at your heart,” he says of Game.

Ed’s two-wheeler is curbed today. He’s trekking Los Angeles in a tinted black SUV, now en route to Carson’s Stubhub Center for a performance at Wango Tango, an annual full-day concert thrown by pop radio station KIIS-FM that features the likes of Shakira, Calvin Harris and Kid Ink rocking the stage this year. Ed plugs a line-in cable to his Macbook Pro and cues up the 15 Game collaborations they’ve cranked out in only three studio sessions.

The first track to play is the midtempo “California Lovin,” which features Sheeran saluting the Left Coast while The Game momentarily imitates Kendrick Lamar over a bluesy beat that’s warm like a freshly ironed T-shirt. There’s an eerie, unfinished DJ Mustard-produced strip club anthem that actually sounds different than everything else he’s produced in the past 365; 2 Chainz and Ty Dolla $ign may guest here. “Roadside” finds Game on the proverbial ledge, contemplating suicide (and name-dropping both late actor Paul Walker and WSHH-viral teen Sharkeisha) over sparse strings while Ed consoles Mom. In all, it’s a unique, excellent bridge between geniuses of very different musical planets.

Sheeran’s Stubhub Center green room is stacked with water bottles, Doritos, mini Twix bars and other junk food. His set time is six hours away, but instead of warming up his falsetto, Ed is curled up on a white leather couch thumbing his iPhone and geeking on rap lyrics. Unprompted, he yawns before reciting a rare, extra-lewd Notorious B.I.G. verse from Uncle Luke’s 1996 song “Bust a Nut.”

Sheeran’s manager, Stuart, enters with a rough cut of the visual for “Sing.” As they deliberate the video’s puppet-to-Pharrell ratio, Sheeran uses his feet to pry off his white Vans. “Would you mind if I take a quick nap?” he asks from the fetal position. His small team obliges, cutting off the lights and clearing out the room, leaving just Ed and his guitar.


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