NEW YORK – Ed Sheeran has spoken of not wanting to be defined by “Thinking Out Loud,” his 2014 love song whose viral success made him one of the world’s elite pop stars overnight.
His strategy to beat “Thinking Out Loud,” it turns out, works two ways — writing even more ballads in hopes of outdoing his mega-hit and also branching out musically in startling new directions.
The British songwriter earlier this month put out his third album that is forecast to be one of 2017’s top-selling releases — “Divide,” which, like Sheeran’s other works, is named after a mathematical symbol.
Through the 16 songs, Sheeran alternates between his now signature sound — acoustic pop with roots in classic soul — and tracks that, by chance or design, may make some of his fans scratch their heads.
The now 26-year-old surprises from the get-go on “Divide” by becoming a rapper. In a narrative style reminiscent of top rappers such as Kendrick Lamar, Sheeran turns his song into a mission statement as he muses on his newfound fame.
Rapping of a lifestyle of drinking, smoking and drugs, Sheeran says: “I guess it’s a stereotypical day for someone like me/ Without a 9-to-5 job or a uni degree/ To be caught in the trappings of the industry.”
On “Galway Girl” and “Nancy Mulligan,” Sheeran veers into Irish traditional music, with the second song an endearing and consciously retro telling of his grandparents’ love story.
In the album’s most unexpected turn, Sheeran sets his guitar pop to Afrobeat rhythms in a collaboration with the Ghanaian-British artist Fuse ODG on “Bibia Be Ye Ye.”
Fuse ODG wrote on Facebook that Sheeran worked on the song with him in Ghana and that the chorus means “all will be well” in the Twi language.
But on much of “Divide,” Sheeran focuses on what he has become known for — earnest love songs, now seemingly dedicated to his girlfriend Cherry Seaborn, a friend from his childhood in Suffolk.
“Perfect” and “Hearts Don’t Break Around Here” are like “Thinking Out Loud” guided by little-adorned guitar and seem equally destined to become favorite wedding first-dance songs.
Sheeran closes the album in darker territory with the ballad “Save Myself” as he swaps guitar for piano and wonders, with an angst that turns suicidal, whether his love is requited.
When it comes to business, at least, Sheeran has every reason to expect success. He has already topped the monthly listener chart on leading streaming service Spotify after releasing the first two singles off “Divide” including “Shape of You,” a minimalist dance track about picking up a woman at a bar.
The ginger-haired singer, who has admitted that he does not have a typical pop star physique, struggled in his early years. He busked in London and moved to Los Angeles with little plan other than to play open-mic nights.
His career enjoyed a jolt when he was taken under the wing of pop superstar Taylor Swift. “Thinking Out Loud” became the first song played half a billion times on Spotify, although the record has been repeatedly broken.
Yet Sheeran acknowledges his doubts. On “What Do I Know?” he recalls his father’s warnings not to discuss politics.
But Sheeran — who delayed “Divide” so it would not be overshadowed by the U.S. election — notices the tumult around him.
“I’m just a boy with a one-man show/ No university, no degree,” he sings. “Love can change the world in a moment. But what do I know?”