A strange thing happened in early June in the middle of the Billboard Hot 100: three massive British hits, each with vocals from the same young singer, lined up like dominoes at No. 29 to No. 31. The songs were “Latch” by Disclosure, “La La La” by Naughty Boy and “Stay With Me,” all performed by Sam Smith, a 22-year-old native of rural England known for his dramatic pronunciation and rich voice. Smith will release his full-length debut, In the Lonely Hour, on June 17; the album caps off a meteoric ascent that has led critics to dub him the male Adele.
Those chart-climbing collaborations with dance acts Disclosure and Naughty Boy have marked Smith as a rising star in the artistically fertile world of British dance music. But rather than continue his advance into beat-driven pop, In the Lonely Hour finds Smith changing course and doubling back to recognizably classic sounds: warm, simple melodies with structures and tones cribbed from gospel music, plus luxurious strings and guitar lines that complement his fluttering vocal turns.
The album’s lone dance track, the drum-and-bass-propelled lead single “Money on My Mind,” counters its contemporary sound with a reassuring, old-fashioned lyric. Smith understands that his voice is the key unlocking these songs, and when it’s made the focal point he shines: as the brooding, bruised “I’ve Told You Now” moves from bubbling rage to anguished wailing, Smith’s pain leaps from the speakers, familiar and undeniable.
Smith isn’t the only young British man in the midst of an assault on the stateside charts: “Sing,” the lead single from 23-year-old Ed Sheeran’s upcoming sophomore album, is currently at No. 14. Sheeran has a longer track record of American prominence than Smith–he has collaborated with Taylor Swift, written songs for the gently tousled miscreants of One Direction and been nominated for a few Grammys–but specifics aside, he’s making a similar bet that his solo success in the U.K. can be duplicated in the U.S. Like many of his young fans, Sheeran is a musical polyglot, raised on folk, R&B, hip-hop and rock in equal measure. Whereas Smith used dance as a launching pad, Sheeran used rap: he incorporates the genre into even his most traditional songs. His new album, x, is due out on June 23 and takes steps into genres other than his default acoustic-pop-rock mode.
Sheeran takes these steps with the help of several distinctive producers, most notably reigning chart king Pharrell Williams. He co-produced the album’s lusty lead single, “Sing,” but Sheeran’s smooth, woolly tenor fails to conjure the required sexual tension. He rounds into form when he uses his softness to his advantage, cocooning himself in layers of warm harmony and setting slippery, agile lyricism against slowly building arrangements. “I’m a Mess” is a highlight, a simple song that hangs on a gutsy vocal performance; “Thinking Out Loud” is even better–woodsy and unabashedly romantic, a celebration of long-lasting love that’s reminiscent of Sheeran’s boyhood idol Van Morrison.
That softness came in handy during a recent acoustic set, when Sheeran covered a song he called “an instant classic”: Smith’s own “Stay With Me,” kept stark but swelling with a single piano. It was a reverent take, a show of respect: one would-be pop prince tipping his cap to another as they make their plays for America’s ears.
This appears in the June 23, 2014 issue of TIME.
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