If living well is the best revenge, perhaps charting well is the best Grammy clap-back? For Ed Sheeran, our premier polymath pop troubadour, this holiday season really has been the ultimate in bad news–good news whiplash. Within the space of two weeks, Sheeran was shut out of every top Grammy category—by a Recording Academy that seemed destined to bolt Sheeran’s name onto all the golden gramophones—and then, days later, he laid waste to the Billboard charts again. “Perfect,” the fourth official single from Sheeran’s ÷ (Divide) album, becomes his second Hot 100 No. 1 song of 2017, eight months after his first, “Shape of You,” completed a dozen-week run on top. The very same day Billboard announced this, the magazine also revealed that “Shape” was the No. 1 Hot 100 hit of the year, outgunning 2017’s record-setting Song of the Summer “Despacito,” which ranks second for the year. And by the way, it’s the second year in a row that Sheeran has been the author of the top Billboard hit, and the third year in a row that he’s had one of the top two: The No. 1 song of 2016, Justin Bieber’s spiteful kiss-off “Love Yourself,” was co-written by Sheeran, and on Billboard’s list of the biggest songs of 2015, his “Thinking Out Loud” came in at No. 2.
Pretty quickly, in the press, Sheeran’s attitude toward the Grammy nominations has turned from sad-sack to modestly cheerful and maybe even a bit shady—his comments veering from two weeks ago’s “maybe this year wasn’t my year” to this week’s, “You know, I’m not dying.” He has even started redirecting the media toward his renewed chart prowess: “The week after [the Grammy snub], I get an MBE from the palace, I go No. 1 on Spotify, …I’m about to have my second ever Billboard No. 1—like, there’s so many things in the mix that counterbalance it.” It is hilarious to consider an Ed Sheeran who now turns to the love of the people as compensation for his underrating by the eternally middlebrow tastemakers in the Recording Academy—particularly when the latter camp gave him a Song of the Year Grammy just 22 months ago.
However its creator spins this, the success of “Perfect” on the Hot 100 wasn’t a foregone conclusion. In fact, in America, it was actually a minor comeback. If 2017 has felt like the year Ed Sheeran finally became inescapable, that’s mostly due to one song, the perky, faux–tropical-house “Shape of You.” After landing in January, “Shape” became even more absurdly ubiquitous than the average big hit. It broke a record for the longest run in Billboard’s Top 10—an unprecedented 33 weeks, from January through early September (this is basically how it topped “Despacito” for the year)—and it’s still sitting in the Top 30 in this, its 48th week. The problem for Ed was following it up. “Shape” arrived paired with a second hit, the wistful, windy “Castle on the Hill,” but after a big Top 10 debut in January, “Castle” plummeted and only managed to crawl back toward the Top 20 by midsummer. Third single “Galway Girl,” a risible blend of Irish jig and thumping pop, must have seemed like a good idea for Sheeran’s huge global audience but was an all-out flop in America, peaking outside our Top 40. By the fall, Sheeran had a unique problem: He was pop’s biggest star of the year—especially before his pal Taylor Swift came back—but he needed another real, actual, omnipresent hit.
Sheeran addressed his emergency by breaking some industrial-strength glass: He called in Beyoncé. To be fair, the idea long predated Sheeran’s late-summer search for a single. The two had met and even sung together at the 2015 Grammys, and Ed began courting Bey to sing on the ballad as far back as last spring, while “Shape of You” was riding high. Finally recorded in September—Sheeran said the mighty Knowles-Carter needed only one take (shocker)—the new “Perfect” remained a secret for a few more weeks while Sheeran issued his original album cut as a single. His solo version managed to climb into the Top 10 by late November.
With or without Beyoncé, “Perfect” was fated to be some kind of hit: It’s schlock, if ruthlessly effective. As Alfred Soto points out at The Singles Jukebox, even those of us who find Sheeran noisome have “had to reckon with his considerable craft. He can write hooks and melodies—facts are facts, people.” In addition to orchestration by classical composer Matthew Sheeran, Ed’s brother, “Perfect” boasts an instantly familiar melody and a ’50s slow-dance arrangement. You half expect the Five Satins to show up and start doo-wopping “In the Still of the Night” over the chorus.
This throwback technique can produce magic—witness the 2015 country-to-pop crossover hit “Girl Crush” by Little Big Town, which paired a vintage trad-pop arrangement with creative, gender-flipped lyrics for something fresh and modern. But that’s where “Perfect” falls down—in its banal sentiments. The lyric is basically a mumblecore version of Eric Clapton’s “Wonderful Tonight”: “When you said you looked a mess/ I whispered underneath my breath/ But you heard it/ Darling, you look perfect/ Tonight.” The duet version improves things slightly but is mostly a case of Lord-giveth-and-taketh, as Queen Bey strips away the orchestration—her suggestion—to leave only Sheeran’s sturdy melody but also his awkward lyrics, which often resemble Max Martin in their syllable-filling nonsense but without the bracing lift of a Martin production.
The most Beyoncé thing about the duet was how Sheeran finally deployed it: a surprise reveal. Officially titled “Perfect Duet”—a full acoustic rerecording, yet close enough to the original Ed-only “Perfect” that Billboard counts the two versions together for chart purposes—version deux instantly gave the song a kick to go the last mile. After the Bey duet had been on sale only a few hours, it amassed enough points to hurtle “Perfect” into the Hot 100’s Top Three. The following week, with a full week of sales and streams, “Perfect” leapt to No. 1, ejecting Post Malone’s “Rockstar” from the penthouse after an eight-week run on top. “Perfect” is doing well at radio, too, currently ranked third in airplay. In the 2010s, pop radio hasn’t always warmed to slow romancers, unless they’re by Adele or the people imitating her, but after the smash success of 2015’s “Thinking Out Loud,” radio programmers appear to have placed Sheeran in a bulletproof Adele-like category.
The same week “Perfect”/“Perfect Duet” reached the summit, Billboard officially added Beyoncé’s name as a coequal credit on the single, since nearly two-thirds of “Perfect’s” digital sales were tallied by the duet. It’s the second time this year Bey was added to a single’s artist credit mid-run. Just two months ago, she turned J. Balvin’s “Mi Gente,” a post-“Despacito” crossover reggaetón hit, into a No. 3 smash by Bieber-izing it with new English verses. While the “Gente” remix gave Bey her first Top Three hit in more than three years, Bey’s teamup with Sheeran is an even bigger career milestone. “Perfect Duet” is Beyoncé’s first Hot 100 chart-topper since—perhaps you’ve heard of this one?—“Single Ladies (Put a Ring on It),” which topped the Hot 100 in December 2008, a month after Barack Obama was elected president.
Let’s pause and reiterate this point, which might stun you if you haven’t been paying close attention to the Hot 100 for the last decade: This is Beyoncé’s first No. 1 song in nine years—her first of the 2010s, period, and she got it via Ed Sheeran. For all of the hashtags, concert grosses, political activism, critical acclaim, awards-show and Super Bowl–halftime dominance, and even jokey memes about the indestructability of Beyoncé’s fame, this whole decade the most famous pop star in America has had no pop-chart toppers. She came closest with “Drunk in Love,” the surfbortin’ lead single from her 2013 self-titled masterpiece, which reached No. 2 in early 2014. But “Drunk” peaked largely on the strength of Beyoncé’s massive download sales; it never ranked higher on Billboard’s airplay chart than No. 6. Other chattering-class phenomena like her Bey-squad banger “7/11” or her Black Lives Matter anthem “Formation” have fallen well short of the Top 10 (or, in the case of her delirious, boof-boofing “Countdown,” simply missed the Top 40 entirely). Now four years away from her 40th birthday, Bey seems to have regarded Sheeran’s “Perfect” the way Justin Timberlake leveraged “Can’t Stop the Feeling” last year—as a late-career insurance policy.
So, who needed whom more, between the Ginger Hobbit and the Queen Bey? The short answer is each needed the other—but for different reasons.
Sheeran’s needs were simpler. He had to revive a hit-bound but dormant track on a nine-month-old album. In other words, he had to give the public—even diehard fans—a reason to consume “Perfect” again. So he did what pal Taylor Swift did two and a half years ago with her album cut “Bad Blood,” the fourth single from 1989, which only became a smash after she got Kendrick Lamar to rap on it. As I said in this series when “Bad Blood” hit No. 1, all Lamar had to do for Swift was show up—in the digital era, when all songs are available for single-song purchase or streaming the moment an album drops, the music business no longer has scarcity at its command when it comes to picking the third, fourth, or fifth radio single from an album. Those songs have been out a la carte for months, and even if the artist is a superstar and the album’s a smash, turning a late single from it into a chart-topping hit is tougher now. That is, unless you can get a starry guest to reboot the track—preferably, if you are a white pop star, a cultural-cred–having black artist. (This trick also worked six years ago for Katy Perry on the fourth and fifth No. 1 hits from her record-setting Teenage Dream album, remixed with Kanye West and Missy Elliott, respectively.)
But Beyoncé needed Sheeran, too—as absurd as this sounds, he made Bey more radio-friendly. The 2010s has been a decade of exploration for Beyoncé as she’s, admirably, tested pop’s political and sonic boundaries. Truthfully, Bey has been cutting-edge her whole career, even back when she was a regular chart-topper: helping to reinvent R&B singing around rap cadence on the 1999 Destiny’s Child hit “Say My Name,” breaking the genius sample-deploying producer Rich Harrison on 2003’s start-stop smash “Crazy in Love,” and more. But this decade, she’s really pushed it to the limit, as much as a culturally dominant megastar can, from “Run the World (Girls)” to “Partition” to “Daddy Lessons.” At some point early this decade—probably around the time her 2011 album 4 did solid black radio business but tanked at Top 40—Bey decided that, like her husband’s sometime-friend Kanye West, she wasn’t necessarily going to try for pop hits anymore. Artistically, critically, and on the album chart, she’s pulled this off. At a time when albums don’t shift traditional units anymore, both Beyoncé and Lemonade sold at double-platinum levels (sold, not streamed) and commanded critics’ year-end lists. But sooner or later a pop deity needs a regular-ass radio hit to remind her global following why, exactly, she lives on Mt. Olympus. Sheeran’s wedding-ready weeper jump-started that process—kind of a genius move, when you’re not working on your own album and on de facto maternity leave.
As for Ed Sheeran, “Perfect” puts a button on the biggest year of his career and rights the ship after the Grammy story nearly ruined his narrative. And he’s not done milking the song yet: Late this week, Sheeran confirmed the rumor that’s been swirling for a couple of weeks and dropped “Perfect” version three: a duet with popera demigod Andrea Bocelli. Yet again, Ed’s singing partner might benefit as much from the teamup as Sheeran—Bocelli even more than Beyoncé. Despite two decades of gold and platinum albums and prior duets with everyone from Céline Dion to Mary J. Blige, the Italian tenor has never scored a U.S. Top 40 hit. Literally the only time Bocelli’s name has even appeared on the Hot 100 was the single week in 2010 that his duet with Blige on “Bridge Over Troubled Water” debuted and peaked at No. 75. Two chart weeks from now, when the data rolls in, it will be interesting to see whether in a three-way contest between solo Sheeran, Beyoncé, and Bocelli, the latter racks up enough sales and streams to have his name instantly added to a No. 1 hit. And hey, Bocelli has also—oddly—never won a Grammy. Maybe, by the time of the 2019 awards, “Perfect” will get him to the podium, and get Sheeran back there. Sound craven? You have to suspect this idea crossed somebody’s mind.