to sing defiantly about being oneself requires some amount of defining who you’re not. Sheeran’s songs implicitly and explicitly cast criticism at others, and they tend to be people who put effort into their appearance, whether by renting a Hummer or wearing something to a gala other than jeans. It’s a vintage pop move, critiquing materialism in hit songs: Sheeran’s rewriting Lorde’s “Royals,” the O’Jays’ “For the Love of Money,” the Beatles’ “Can’t Buy Me Love,” and so on. Yet few artists have as insistently pursued that lyrical theme while also allying with the music of the materialist mainstream—which, in this moment, is hip-hop and R&B.
But Sheeran is not seeking acceptance as a rapper, really. Rather, he’s a pop star for a moment when the definition of pop is contested and gatekeepers are fretting about their older, whiter, more closed-minded audiences. Top 40 radio stations remain slow to promote some of the most massive songs in the country when they’re by hip-hop artists. Adult contemporary radio, an important and widespread format, has a habit of playing edited versions of popular songs scrubbed of rap. The No. 1 adult-contemporary track right now, “Girls Like You” by Maroon 5, featuring Cardi B, often is broadcast in a form without Cardi B. It’s natural to suspect a racist logic to such programming decisions, especially when Sheeran’s “Shape of You” and “Sing” had no problem gaining traction in Top 40 and adult-contemporary formats.