Songs on Drake’s recently released More Life will inevitably enter the various singles charts around the world via streaming services. In the UK, the strongest competition these songs will face will be from all 16 songs on Ed Sheeran’s symbolically titled and also recently released album, ÷.
Sheeran’s achievement of having all 16 songs place in the UK Top 20 singles makes Drake’s immediate post-Views haul of 20 in the Billboard Hot 100 look like child’s play. ÷ is the final step in Sheeran’s gradual shift from baby-faced ginger 20-year-old whispering about class ‘A’s over acoustic guitar to England’s own version of a man who constantly refers to himself as The Boy.
Both The Boy and The English Ginger Boy have achieved their dominance through the aid of streaming numbers becoming part of single sales metrics — Sheeran’s “Thinking Out Loud” was the first single to hit number one in the UK with streaming help — by way of their strategic alliances with various musical hard hitters, mutual swapping of commercial viability and reputation, and their co-opting of the sellable aspects of cultures that are not their own.
Sheeran’s alliance with Stormzy has been more merciful than Drake’s method of sucking the juice from the flows of Dave, iLoveMakonnen, Wizkid, et al. and repaying them with that fleeting nugget called exposure. Instead of the harrowing prospect of the man who once made an EP with Yelawolf spitting a verse on “Shut Up” or “Big for Your Boots”, we thankfully only got a verse from the new king of grime on a remix of ÷’s lead single “Shape of You”, itself an aping of Drake’s aping of dancehall that Rihanna almost definitely laughed at when it was submitted to her.
Both men have pushed past the collaborations to embrace cultures that they have tentative, sometimes familial, links to in order to position themselves as omnipresent in both your life and in the charts. Both have latched onto the grime renaissance bandwagon; Sheeran had pre-empted it in a way with 2011’s No. 5 Collaborations Project EP, which featured Wiley, Ghetts, JME and more, but was then largely quiet in terms of the scene — the Devlin collab “Watchtower” notwithstanding — until he brought Stormzy out to perform the remix at the Brit Awards.
Drake’s flirtation with grime and its culture is a well-established and a much-trodden discussion topic by now, from his collaborations with Skepta and Dave, his support of AJ Tracey, his fandom and possible funding of a third season of Top Boy and his pretty embarrassing Boy Better Know tattoo.
Not one to be outdone, Sheeran has his own, even more embarrassing, tattoo. In amongst the shrubbery of his 40+ hours of tattoo work, you will find a little nonsensical phrase written on his right bicep in the Irish language, or Gaeilge: Nuair is gá dom fháil abhaile, is tú mo réalt eolais. Translated this means: When I have to get [get as in the way you would get a drink or some food, not get home] home, you are my information star. “Réalt eolais” could be an Irish thing that doesn’t translate properly, you might say. I was raised bilingually, speaking Irish with my father and English with my mother. Eleven and a half of my 18 years of education were taught in the Irish language. Not once in my schooling did anybody ever say “réalt eolais”.
The tattoo was essentially a precursor to “Galway Girl”, one of the 16 Ed Sheeran songs occupying a spot in the Top 20. Where Drake had success with his cherry picking of aspects of the southern hip-hop from his father’s home of Memphis — although not as much as its southern cousin Houston — Sheeran has gone the route of his paternal grandparents’ homeland, Ireland. Doing something nobody, including his label, thought was a good idea, Sheeran pastiches the Coors of all bands and talks of Ireland like someone who has never been there.
He sings of meeting the eponymous Galway girl outside of a bar on Grafton Street, Dublin’s pedestrianised street that doesn’t have any bars on it. It’s true that the entrance to the courtyard of Lillie’s Bordello is there, but no part of Lillie’s can be seen from Grafton Street. It’s also not a pub. Then the Galway girl asks him about the “Gaelic ink” on his arm, becoming the first Irish person ever to refer to Irish. Nonetheless, Irish people lapped up Sheeran’s riffings on the basic idea of Irelander’s being drunk, rowdy and with fiddle in hand at all times. “Galway Girl” currently sits at number one in the Irish Singles Chart, with the other 15 songs on his album making up the next 15 places in the chart.
Unless Drake has a song called “Carlow Ting” up his sleeve, it’s safe to assume he won’t be toppling Ed in Ireland at least, and it’s a long shot to think he could do it in the UK, either. Instead he’ll be left to battle with the ghostlike Rag ‘n’ Bone Man, who manages to chart while having close to zero fans, and Ed’s old buddy, Stormzy. There was a brief spark of hope the week before ÷ was released, when Stormzy’s excellent Gang Signs & Prayer hit number one in the UK. Stormzy had done the impossible, he had become the first grime artist to score a number one album and he had done it without a record label. He was England’s Chance the Rapper, but when Ed brought him out at the Brits, you could sense that the narrative was being set.
Ed Sheeran’s pal hits number one, thanks to the publicity he got from Ed Sheeran and then a week later, ÷ comes out and everybody forgets about how good a song “Mr. Skeng” is. There were even rumours started that Sheeran had purposely delayed his album’s release so that his friend could get the number one spot. With a few slick moves, a watershed moment for the most important musical movement in 21st century Britain was turned into more evidence of Sheeran being a nice man. It was all a bit Drake, a bit Taylor Swift, a seemingly selfless marketing ploy that ensures the focus never leaves the apparent do-gooder.
In her brilliant takedown of Sheeran for Pitchfork, Laura Snapes said that he has “always loved to neg and to position himself as an innocent victim,” which could just as easily be a sentence about Drake, or Swift, who herself used the rising wave of Ed to her advantage by placing him on her 2013 album, Red, the album that signalled the beginning of her shift from country-pop to full-blown pop.
There’s an incredibly sweet moment toward the end of Gang Signs & Prayer where Crazy Titch, a grime original, speaks to Stormzy on a phone from behind bars as he serves a life sentence for murder. “Mr. Smith is nearly obsolete and we don’t need those label ones again,” Titch says, using Stormzy’s success as an independent as proof. Today the biggest threat to artists isn’t the insidiousness of record labels and A&Rs; it’s vampire artists like Drake, like Sheeran, like Swift saying she’d never call herself a feminist and then flip-flopping when she realised it was profitable to call herself a feminist, who attempt to suck the blood of artists bubbling under and use their life force to preserve and propel their careers to new heights. While this kind of approach to super-superstardom — homogenous across nationalities, genre and genders — exists, Titch’s words will be said in hope of a bright future rather than as a celebration of the present.