Who will take home Grammy's biggest prize?
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In algebra, the letter "x" often refers to an unknown -- something Ed Sheeran most certainly was not coming into his second album, which debuted at No. 1. Pronounced "multiply," x arrived in late June 2014, by which time this 23-year-old British singer-songwriter had already toured North America with buddy Taylor Swift, headlined Madison Square Garden, and scored a Top 5 album with his 2011 debut, +. Sheeran kicked off 2014 by performing at the Grammys with Elton John, and he just might leave this year's ceremony with an Album of the Year award.
|Release Date||June 24, 2014|
Billboard 200 peak
|No. 1 (one week)|
|Album sales (as of Feb. 2, 2015)||956,000|
Fun Fact: X was Sheeran's first No. 1 album and contains two top 10 hits on the Billboard Hot 100: "Don't" (No. 9) and "Thinking Out Loud" (No. 2)
Although Sheeran has always cited artists ranging from Bob Dylan to Eminem as influences, x comes closer than its predecessor to blending acoustic folk with hip-hop, R&B, and pop. It's an infectious mix heard on leadoff single "Sing," one of two songs co-written and produced by fellow Album of the Year hopeful Pharrell Williams. "Sing" grooved its way to No. 13 on the Billboard Hot 100, Sheeran's highest placement up to that point. The similarly snappy "Don't" -- co-produced by studio guru Rick Rubin and stalwart hitmaker Benny Blanco -- fared even better, peaking at No. 9. The third single, a sweet Jack Gosling-produced ballad called "Thinking Out Loud," climbed all the way to No. 2.
Sheeran wrote "Thinking Out Loud" with fellow U.K. strummer Amy Wadge, who joins the British drum-and-bass act Rudimental and Snow Patrol singer Gary Lightbody on the eclectic list of x collaborators. Sheeran had originally planned to record the entire album with Rubin, but he decided it "just wouldn't work on pop radio," as he told the Telegraph. To truly break in America, Sheeran knew he needed big hooks and beats, and the addition of Gosling, Blanco, Pharrell, and others helped push him over the edge.
The result was what Sheeran has called a "neo-soul-funk record," and as chancy as it was to wait nearly three years after his debut to release it, the extra studio time paid off. In addition to selling well, x streamed like a dream, wracking up 430 million plays on Spotify. Sheeran was named Spotify's most streamed artist of 2014, with more than 860 million plays. He beat out heroes like Coldplay and Eminem, and if his goal was to conquer America like One Direction and Adele, he succeeded by almost any measure. The question now is what he'll do on album number three -- and what mathematical symbol he'll use for the title.