While BTS’ “Butter” and Olivia Rodrigo’s “Good 4 U” remain locked into the Billboard Hot 100’s top two spots for the sixth consecutive frame this week, a debut pulls up just a few spots behind them: Ed Sheeran‘s “Bad Habits,” which bows at No. 5.
The global pop star’s newest single is an uptempo, ’80s-indebted, decidedly nocturnal pop song that’s already off to a dynamite start at radio, and has earned no shortage of comparisons to the man behind the biggest radio hit of the past decade. But while the No. 5 debut for “Habits” – presumed to be the first taste from Sheeran’s upcoming fifth album – is resounding, it’s short of the bows for the lead singles from his prior two projects, 2017’s Divide and 2019’s No.6 Collaborations Project.
How should Sheeran feel about the debut? And what would direction should he pursue for his upcoming fifth album? Billboard staffers discuss these questions and more below.
1. “Bad Habits” debuts at No. 5 this week – excellent for an average pop artist, but down a little bit from his No. 2 bow for his Justin Bieber collab “I Don’t Care” in 2019 (and of course from his No. 1 entrance for “Shape of You” in 2017). If you’re Ed Sheeran, how good are you feeling about the debut, on a scale from 1-10?
Katie Bain: 8. Obviously we’re all prone to comparing ourselves with our past successes and I suspect that even massive pop stars can’t help it (or are more susceptive to it), but “Bad Habits” feels like more of a slow burn success than “I Don’t Care,” which was equipped with extra fuel in the form of Justin Bieber. Likewise, “Bad Habits” is not as immediately catchy as “Shape of You,” but it’s still a sophisticated, high-quality pop song, and one I think that people will latch onto more and more with increased exposure.
Josh Glicksman: Put it at a 6.5. I’m sure Ed Sheeran would’ve loved to make an immaculate return by adding a third Hot 100 No. 1 to his career totals, but I’m thinking he’ll sleep just fine with a top five debut — and that’s not to mention a resounding confirmation of his ever-existent international superstardom, thanks to a No. 1 debut on the Billboard Global Excl. U.S. chart. It’s not like he scuffled in behind some chart newcomers, either: it feels hard to do too much hand wringing when you’re in the company of BTS, Olivia Rodrigo, Doja Cat and Dua Lipa. By and large, it’s a win for Sheeran, though the critical reception has to knock it down a few points.
Jason Lipshutz: I’m feeling, fittingly, a 5. A No. 5 debut is indeed a bit lower than usual for Sheeran, but a top five debut is nothing any artist should sneeze at, even a stadium-packer like Ed. It’s also not like “Bad Habits” was boxed out by weak competition, either: we currently have a six-week chart-topper in BTS’ “Butter” and radio smashes in “good 4 u,” “Kiss Me More” and “Levitating” occupying the upper reaches of the Hot 100. If a No. 5 bow is not an occasion for a superstar like Sheeran to pop the champagne, it’s not one to hang his head in shame, either.
Joe Lynch: As Acting Ed Sheeran, I’m feeling a 7.5. A top five debut on the Hot 100 – which has become increasingly unpredictable turf for A-listers in the last few years – is pretty damn good. At the very least, it’s the highest charting song about poorly designed nun’s clothing in Hot 100 history.
Andrew Unterberger: About a 4. Not particularly charitable, perhaps, but that’s the rub of being a star at Sheeran’s level: It’s pretty close to No. 1 or Bust for their splashy return singles – with allowances arguably made for instances like “I Don’t Care” being kept at No. 2 only by the historic run of Lil Nas X’s “Old Town Road.” A top 5 bow for Sheeran is hardly a disaster, but it is a disappointment, particularly given how all-out Sheeran went with the promotional blitz – the high-concept music video, the week of Late Late Show hosting, the extensive teasing pre-release – and how big an early airplay boost he’s being given, with the song already No. 11 on Radio Songs in its first full week of release. Given all that, to still have four songs separating him and the top spot marks a bit of a soft landing for Ed.
2. Does the slightly lower debut portend a shorter shelf-life for “Bad Habits” than those other long-lasting Sheeran hits, or do you see it still having room to grow and endure from here?
Katie Bain: As previously mentioned, this song has a seductive quality that I suspect will cause it to grow on people over time. Upon first listen it’s like “okay, well done, Ed!” but listening to it again (and again) reveals the song to have greater complexity than one might absorb upon first listen. I think most significantly, it’s interesting that “Bad Habits” is essentially a house track, with the 4/4 beat giving it both a sense of urgency and a party vibe. (I can see a remix package in the future.) The lyrics are also appealing, but given that Sheeran delivers them rather quickly on the chorus, it may take more time for people to fully absorb everything (namely, the darkly addictive qualities of love) that he’s singing about.
Josh Glicksman: It feels hugely shortsighted to me to bet against an Ed Sheeran song having an extended shelf life. “Bad Habits” isn’t ultimately going to surpass the likes of “Shape of You,” “Thinking Out Loud,” “Perfect” or “I Don’t Care” if you only have the option to queue up one of his hits on DSPs, but there’s virtually no doubt that it’ll sink its teeth into heavy radio airplay for months to come. It’s no coincidence that he already has 13 top 10 hits on Adult Pop Airplay. “Bad Habits” becoming No. 14 is a bet I’d take 101 times out of 100.
Jason Lipshutz: Bet against the ubiquity of an Ed Sheeran single at your own risk: from “Shape of You” to “Castle on the Hill” to “I Don’t Care” to “Perfect,” his songs tend to persist on pop radio and near the top of streaming playlists for months on end. “Bad Habits” is slightly less immediate than those smashes, but still sports a brain-bustlingly catchy hook that’s designed for top 40 ubiquity. We’ll still be humming along to “Bad Habits” when we put away our t-shirts and bust out our fall sweaters.
Joe Lynch: Perhaps, relatively speaking. Sheeran’s songs tend to stick around on radio for eons, so if “Bad Habits” – which is already gaining a strong foothold at radio – has a shorter shelf life compared to “Shape of You,” for instance, you should still expect to hear “Habits” well into the fall.
Andrew Unterberger: Again, it comes back to radio – which leans mightily on new releases by established stars like Sheeran, and which appears to have already ticketed “Bad Habits” for the heaviest of rotation. With that radio base as a foundation, “Bad Habits” can afford to take its sweet time building momentum; even if it slips a little in the next few weeks, it’s probably not leaving the chart’s top tier anytime soon, and then it may only be a high-profile performance or remix away from vaulting past this week’s peak.
3. “Habits,” along with its music video, has been cited by many as being obviously inspired by The Weeknd and his recent After Hours album cycle. Do you think the comparisons are fair – and if so, how successful do you think Sheeran is at following in Abel Tesfaye’s footsteps?
Katie Bain: Any pop star that steps out in a brightly colored suit for the next few years will be reasonably compared to The Weeknd, and I think it’s a surprising move for Sheeran to do something so clearly derivative of one of the most popular albums of the last decade. Call it an homage, but purely in terms of aesthetic, “Bad Habits” feels like “Blinding Lights”-lite, with Sheeran not really possessing the same deranged quality as Tesfaye was able to muster for his Man In the Red Suit character. (Even Sheeran’s magenta suit itself is lighter.) But I’m not mad at it! Sheeran’s vampire character is endearing and has sort of a comic book quality that I think really works, despite the fact that I’m not really scared of his monster.
Josh Glicksman:The comparisons aren’t unfounded by any stretch – it’s easy to buy into the comparison after listening to the song’s dance-pop energy and seeing Sheeran don the suit and tie combo in the video. That said, “Bad Habits” seems to me like a not-quite-there attempt to recreate the success of “Shape of You” more so than an imitation of After Hours, though it’s possible he just missed the mark in an effort to do so. But if this was Sheeran trying to follow the path forged by The Weeknd in the past year-plus, he should take a different route: the gap in quality between the After Hours singles and “Bad Habits” is staggering, to put it lightly.
Jason Lipshutz: In terms of the comparisons, it will depend upon how much the slightly sinister vibes from “Bad Habits” are translated across the entirety of Sheeran’s next album; The Weeknd’s After Hours era was so effective because it contained an easily identifiable visual through-line, and it remains to be seen whether or not Sheeran will do the same. Even though I wouldn’t recommend carrying over Vampire Ed to his upcoming music videos, there’s a way for Sheeran to turn “Bad Habits” into the first installment of a cohesive project.
Joe Lynch: I think it’s an unavoidable comparison. Not to say the Weeknd has a trademark on an entire decade, but the higher-register vocal fragility Ed is giving us mixed with the thumping late-night synths bring to mind Abel’s distinct mélange of the ’80s and contemporary pop on After Hours. I don’t know how well this finely tailored, bright colored suit (changed from red to pink in this case) fits Sheeran, however. The immediacy of the hook and effortless melodicism is clearly all Ed, but it feels a bit like he’s borrowed a friend’s outfit for a night on the town and can’t quite get comfortable in the new duds.
Andrew Unterberger: It’s a fair comparison, though one that could be made for any number of pop radio singles of the past 12 months – such was the massive force of “Blinding Lights” and After Hours, the kind of blockbuster successes that invariably alter the default sound of current top 40. As far as post-Weeknd pop goes, “Bad Habits” is proficient if not quite inspired; you do have to wonder why Sheeran didn’t even bother enlisting Tesfaye collaborator Max Martin for maximum impact. The real horrorshow, though, is the music video — a maddening and absolutely incoherent mess that seems to have no idea what it wants to be, and ends up some unholy mixture of After Hours, Joker and the film version of Cats, making the song seem like much more of a misstep than it actually is by association.
4. The duality of Ed Sheeran is of him on one hand being a major pop star, who creates massive pop songs and collaborates with countless other major pop stars – and on the other, being a pretty average-presenting guy with a guitar who tours stadiums playing solo with a guitar and a loop pedal. How well has he kept one foot in both worlds to you since entering pop’s A-list? Is it something he should be able to keep doing indefinitely?
Katie Bain: Really well, it seems to me. Sheeran’s everyman quality is endearing both because it’s a bit of an anomaly in pop music and also because it just seems so damn genuine. I respect him for not allowing himself to become something else, or just becoming something else (a flying vampire, in this case) with a sort of sweetness that doesn’t betray the person he actually seems to be. I hope he keeps it up, and I imagine if he’s come this far without compromising, he should be able to maintain that normcore integrity.
Josh Glicksman: It’s a difficult juggling act for any artist, but he’s done an adequate job balancing the two worlds. He’s someone you can rely on for the heart-tugging ballad that’s tailor-made for his solo stage set-ups (“Perfect”) but has still regularly shown the ability to dial up the energy either on his own (“Shape of You,” “Castle on the Hill”) or alongside pop’s premier names (“I Don’t Care” with Justin Bieber). If I were him, I’d ease up on the star-studded team-ups on his forthcoming album – particularly after No.6 Collaborations Project – in favor of a few more slow burners. Maybe focus on saving those massive pop hits for BTS instead.
Jason Lipshutz: On his way to global pop superstardom, Sheeran has taken detours into bigger sounds, alongside A-list collaborators and with some dramatic visual choices (i.e., the “Bad Habits” music video). Yet he deserves credit for not upending his core appeal to the point in which his voice and songwriting technique have become unrecognizable from the British busker who won hearts roughly a decade ago. I saw Sheeran perform at the Mercury Lounge very early in his career, and at MetLife Stadium on his last world tour… and both shows were pretty similar, a singer-songwriter onstage with a guitar and pedal loop, belting out crowd-pleasing melodies. As long as his risks don’t subvert that base charm, Sheeran can be a pop star for another decade, at least.
Joe Lynch: I think he pulled off that duality very well for years but seemingly grew tired of it, and you can’t fault him for that. 2019’s all-collabs album flexed his Rolodex in a way that set him apart from The Guitar Guy Next Door, and The Joker-meets-Lost Boys vibes of the “Bad Habits” video seems to indicate he’s ready to cast himself in a role (glam vampire) that by definition is extra-ordinary. To me, it seems like he’s slowly moving into a more sculpted, curated realm (think Taylor on Reputation), and when he eventually pivots back to the basics (think Taylor on folklore), it will probably pay off dividends.
Andrew Unterberger: It’s worked well enough, but the returns seem to be diminishing. “Shape of You” was an absolute pop KO, the kind of four-quadrant smash that changes career trajectories, but its unqualified success might prove to be something of an anomaly for Sheeran, whose signature hits (and whose celebrity persona) have mostly been intimate, stripped-down, approachable. Ed still seems to be trying for at least one “Shape of You” per album – easier said than done – but I’m not sure he needs one; habitually chasing pop trends like this seems to sell short the tremendous success he’s been able to achieve operating mostly on his own terms.
5. If you were executive producing Sheeran’s next album, lay out your quick master plan for how you’d steer the set.
Katie Bain: I’m into the uptempo, dance vibe of “Bad Habits,” and I think it’d be interesting for him to expand more in this direction in terms of production, so I’d tell Ed to give ’em more of the same as what he’s started with here.
Josh Glicksman: Keep it simple! In an increasingly genre-agnostic world, it’s easy to want to try everything, but for Sheeran, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. His bread and butter is still the radio-friendly acoustic guitar track that’ll warm the heart of a parent and their teenage child alike riding together in the car on a breezy autumn day.
Jason Lipshutz: It’s unlikely to happen with this album, but I’d love to hear Sheeran’s Folklore – something stripped-down and intimate, but not necessarily acoustic. Sheeran is a gifted songwriter who thrives in quieter pockets of sound, which is why full-band ballads like “Thinking Out Loud” and “Perfect” have become some of his biggest hits, but he’s gravitated towards pop radio fodder in recent years, and I expect him to continue to do so. Still, when he’s ready to take a critically acclaimed trip to the woods, I’d hope Aaron Dessner and Jack Antonoff would be there to greet him around the campfire.
Joe Lynch: Indeed, Sheeran needs to hole himself up at cabin in the English moors with a couple long-term pals with trusted ears and write an acoustic, back-to-basics set of songs over the course of a social media-free fortnight. Whether he releases them in near-demo form or dolls them up with a slightly fuller sound for the proper album, I think the results would appeal to O.G. Stans and critics.
Andrew Unterberger: Forget Sheeran’s Folklore: How about his Positions? Dude’s been married for a couple years now, and he’s already written a handful of songs that will soundtrack wedding receptions for decades to come. Why not do an entire album about the wonders of domestic bliss? It’d be a little gross, sure – Sheeran’s love jams always come with a cringe lyric or two – but his fans would love it, and it’d feel authentic. I don’t think Sheerios really want to hear Ed sing about his bad habits anymore than Abel die hards want to hear him cover “Thinking Out Loud.”