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Where Does Ed Sheeran Fit Now?

A lot has changed in pop music since we last heard from him

Once upon a time, 2017 was an unknown quantity — who knew what pop-cultural delights or horrors the New Year could hold? But the news that Ed Sheeran will be releasing new music tomorrow (whether an album or song is TBD) has changed the game.

According to Sheeran’s own tweets, his next record will be called ÷ (following + and x), and will see lyrics like, “When I was 6 years old I broke my leg” and “The club isn’t the best place to find a lover.” (Which tells me dude needs to listen to more Usher.) This is all well and good and standard-issue Sheeran, but it also raises an important question: Where does he fit in now?

Back in December 2015, Ed took a social-media break, explaining to fans that after five years in pop-star mode, he needed to regroup and travel and generally avoid living life via phone screen. Which, like, fair. But 2015 was also technically 300 years ago, at least in terms of cultural evolution. When Sheeran bowed out, his knack for sappy nice-guy love songs had an established niche in the Top 20. Drake was wearing sweaters in the “Hotline Bling” video (a song about the audacity of an ex moving on), The Weeknd was enjoying his first year as a for-real pop star, and not a single former One Direction member had branched out on their own. Not to mention that this came prior to such game-changing releases as Chance the Rapper’s Coloring Book and Frank Ocean’s Blonde, which gave new depth and dimension to the young-and-male experience.

While Sheeran was away, pop music had one of its most dramatically shifting years, where major stars releasing earnest, personal work became the default. We also witnessed carefully crafted candor from some of the genre’s biggest male artists. Justin Bieber went public with his frustration with the realities of his day-to-day life, and Zayn opened up about his anxiety and eating disorder. Even Drake, whose obsession with his own mythology is next-level, primarily used Views as a vehicle for his bitterness and inability to process emotions, while Shawn Mendes used “Treat You Better” as a scream-singable anthem about why being passed over sucks. (But, thanks to its poppiness, the song seemed less like an excuse to emotionally navel-gaze and more like a temper tantrum. Which isn’t flattering, but also arguably the point.)

Niall Horan came closest to Sheeran-bred sappiness with “Our Town,” but even his post-1D momentum could hardly compete with “Pillowtalk” by Zayn, which laced his “I love you, girl” sentiment with grace notes of adult sexuality. Ultimately, young male pop stars used most of 2016 to be explicit as hell, or to show a new kind of nuance and depth. Especially since — as we’ve seen throughout the last year — we’ve begun to celebrate and respond to flaws and messiness. The world has felt shitty, and some of us have felt shitty in it, so it helps to know that sometimes our favorite artists feel (and even act) shitty, too.

But maybe there’s hope. While the two lyrics that Sheeran has offered from his new music don’t exactly seem groundbreaking, we can hope that he’s evolved as an artist. Maybe he’ll move beyond the sometimes problematic “nice guy” framework of his earlier songs. Maybe this new album is his 1989, which parlays sentiment into bankable “I do what I want” pop. Let’s not forget that Taylor Swift and Ed Sheeran come from the same school. And while she used 2015 to insert herself into the pop-culture narrative, by the end of 2016 we all but forgot that at one point she was a Nashville darling, singing about princesses and short skirts. So if Sheeran can break from the safety net of early-twentysomething acoustic guitar and “please love me because I love you” rhetoric, there’s a very good chance he might fit into 2017 as a grown-ass man with something to say.