The Contenders is a midweek column that looks at artists aiming for the top of the Billboard charts, and the strategies behind their efforts. This week (for the upcoming charts dated May 20), one of the biggest pop stars of the past decade takes his turn attempting to depose Morgan Wallen’s Billboard 200 incumbent before its potential 10th week on top.
Ed Sheeran, – (Subtract) (Asylum/Atlantic): For the fifth and presumably final entry in Ed Sheeran’s mathematical symbols series, Sheeran linked up with writer-producer Aaron Dessner for a personal, stripped-down 14-track set. Subtract lacks the kind of obvious pop singles that bolstered prior albums No.6 Collaborations Project (2019) and = (Equals) (2021), though Midas-touched top 40 maestros Max Martin and Shellback are here (along with dance sensation Fred again..) as co-producers on lead single “Eyes Closed.”
“Closed” has not yet achieved the kind of Billboard Hot 100 success of previous No. 2-peaking advance singles “I Don’t Care” (with Justin Bieber) and “Bad Habits” — debuting at just No. 26 and sliding down from there. But there is an obvious precedent for this kind of album finding major success even without a big pop hit, courtesy of Sheeran’s old pal Taylor Swift, whose 2020 album Folklore boasted similarly stark songwriting and stripped-down arrangements (also largely produced and co-authored by Aaron Dessner) and still posted blockbuster first-week numbers. And while Sheeran’s latest single might not have impacted pop culture much yet, his name has certainly been all over headlines lately — thanks to the closely watched copyright trial over his alleged infringement of Marvin Gaye’s “Let’s Get It On
,” on his “Thinking Out Loud,” for which he was found not liable last week.
Since Sheeran’s streaming numbers are not what they
Will it all be enough? One Thing’s numbers have continued to slip, now down to 138,000 equivalent album units in its ninth week at No. 1. However, that number is still comfortably higher than the first-week numbers (118,000 units) posted by Sheeran’s Equals album – which had a big pop smash – so he will need fans to really connect with this highly personal album to earn his fifth No. 1 in a row.
IN THE MIX
Le Sserafim, Unforgiven (Source/YG Plus/Geffen): Korean girl group Le Sserafim made its first splash on the Billboard 200 in October 2022 with its No. 14-peaking Antifragile EP – several tracks of which also appear on its first studio album, Unforgiven. The set boasts 11 collectible CD editions — including exclusives for Target, Walmart and Weverse and comes with a standard set of bonus material
s , plus randomized photocards – as well as a guest appearance from a chart-topper of yore: the legendary Nile Rodgers of Chic, on the title track.
Destroy Lonely, If Looks Could Kill (Opium/Interscope/Ingrooves): One of the few real success stories in hip-hop the past year has been the breakthrough of Atlanta rapper Destroy Lonely, whose guitar-heavy “If Looks Could Kill” became a viral sensation in March after taking off on TikTok. The artist’s debut album is named after that hit single, and features 26 guest-free tracks of woozy, grungy trap — which should make the set one of the week’s biggest new streaming successes.
Various Artists, Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 3: Awesome Mix Vol. 3 (Hollywood/Marvel Music): The third entry in the popular series of soundtracks the blockbuster Guardians of the Galaxy films sees its faux-mixtape format embracing Generation X-era hits from Radiohead, the Beastie Boys and The Replacements – while also keeping a little of its ‘70s core with classics from Heart, Rainbow and Bruce Springsteen. Currently unavailable on streaming, the set is expected to sell well – and can be purchased in a wide-release standard CD, a Walmart-exclusive CD with a poster packaged inside, a Target-exclusive CD variant with collectible “Guardians” branded trading cards, as well as in vinyl exclusives on Disney Music Emporium’s website, and at Target and Walmart.
Taylor Swift, Speak Now (Big Machine): You know how this works by now: Taylor Swift announces a new Taylor’s Version re-recording of one of her early albums, and fans stream the originals in anticipation. Speak Now had already enjoyed the chart bump that all of Swift’s studio albums received following the launch of her breathlessly anticipated Eras Tour – climbing to No. 58 on the most recent Billboard 200. Now, after Swift’s revelation that she plans to revisit her third album next, it’s poised for another big leap on the chart.
This story originally appeared on Billboard