When you're a sweet, talented redhead who's as cute as a Muppet, you've gotta play to your strengths. Ed Sheeran knows that. On his Grammy-nominated debut, +, the British singer-songwriter nailed the part of the squishy-hearted romantic who'll do anything not to get friend-zoned. But he must've learned something from Taylor Swift, who tapped him to open for her Red tour last year, because on x (pronounced ''multiply''), he's finally getting angry, taking aim at a pop-star girlfriend who slept with another guy: ''It's not like we were both on tour,'' he sings on the refreshingly blunt bass-and-drums-driven ''Don't.'' ''We were staying on the same f---ing hotel floor.'' Oof.
Sheeran doesn't name names, but knowing that ''Don't'' could be about famous rumored exes Ellie Goulding or Selena Gomez underlies how his image has changed. He's a big star now with a hit single the white-boy-funky ''Sing'' and he's not that innocent anymore. Working with producers Rick Rubin and Pharrell Williams, who bring out a bluesier, broodier side of his folk-pop, he's dropping F-bombs, admitting to ''smoking illegal weed'' even flirting with rap on a few tracks, including ''The Man,'' a heartfelt rant about love and fame that recalls U.K. garage act the Streets. These little rebellions don't make him edgy, but they feel more honest than the gooey, light-of-a-thousand-stars ballads he's known for. (See also: ''Tenerife Sea,'' on which he gushes over the way a girl does her hair.) Don't worry if you prefer the kinder, gentler Sheeran, though: The fact that he needs to remind us that weed is ''illegal'' suggests that he's still a good boy after all. B