Ed Sheeran Assembles a Star-Studded Crew for Expansive ‘No. 6 Collaborations Project’
Ed Sheeran seems to have no limits in his quest to systematically dominate the world of popular music as we know it. A rare example of what you might call practical idealism, he drew up a plan, prior to his 2011 debut “+,” that is still coming swimmingly to fruition. The grand scheme involved the subsequent release of two more albums titled with symbols, followed by an expansive collection of collaborative works. Sure enough, Sheeran delivered 2014’s “x” and 2017’s “÷,” in a surreal chart-topping, record-breaking spree that found the unassuming Englishman becoming a fixture among the biggest names across genres worldwide, and eventually reaching the number one most-streamed artist on Spotify. While such staggering success stories seem the stuff of fairy tales, it isn’t all that outlandish when you consider that Sheeran is simply a master of his craft. He has surveyed the pop landscape in all its varied forms, and zeroed in on a template that allows him to tap effortlessly into the collective consciousness in a way that speaks for itself.
His latest album, ”No. 6 Collaborations Project,” follows naturally from ”No. 5 Collaborations Project,” a work preceding Sheeran’s full length debut, which found him joining forces with various UK Grime artists. The latest release goes worlds beyond, pairing Sheeran with such diverse artists as Cardi B, Chris Stapleton, Eminem, Khalid and Skrillex, as well as several rappers from his home across the pond. While such restless genre-hopping makes a cohesive record nearly impossible, the album shows Sheeran effortlessly turning out cuts of pop perfection with all the songwriting savvy that we’ve come to expect from him.
Sheeran begins guns blazing, cutting straight to the readymade pop fireworks of anthemic opener “Beautiful People,” featuring Khalid. With a handcapped groove and a sweeping singalong, its feelgood fare with the slight twist of the titular line, in which Sheeran warns, “This is my only fear: that we become / Beautiful people,” before going on to dismissively enumerate such lifestyle signifiers as “designer clothes” and “fashion shows” in the same way as articulated by Lorde on her 2013 chart-topper “Royals.” A dose of irony delivered upon the climactic line of an otherwise sunny song is a very English move, with precedents extending back past the likes of the Smiths, and it serves to inject a touch of self-aware acidity in an otherwise almost cloyingly beaming record. On the other hand, it’s this very buoyancy, this unabashed catering to the most widely shared, elemental instincts that makes the album. Having checked self-awareness off his list with his jab at “beautiful people,” Sheeran promptly dives headlong into Latin stylings, as if to remind us emphatically of his expansive parameters. “South of the Border” is a seamless continuation of the opening track’s effervescence, this time eschewing the irony. Sheeran recruits Camila Cabello and Cardi B, both of whom hail from Latin backgrounds, for a song that celebrates everything tropical, spicy, and exotic, beckoning, “Come south of the border with me.” Cabello and Cardi both riff off the festive beat, showcasing their respective signature flairs, and Sheeran weaves it all into an undeniably catchy song, although he sounds a bit awkward and out of place singing of “caramel thighs” and declaring, “Te amo, Mami.”
On “Cross Me,” Sheeran dons his most boy band voice for a series of verses that wouldn’t sound out of place in an early aughts NSYNC song. And this applies not to just his singing style, but his actual “voice.” This is a persona that Sheeran has long dabbled with, so it comes as no surprise. Still, it’s remarkable for how well it’s pulled off. An album like this is all about versatility, and could be a disaster in less adept hands. Overall, Sheeran manages to handle it with aplomb. Chance the Rapper drops an ebullient verse that, like many of the album’s guest features, could afford to be a bit longer, but rests comfortably on quality over quantity. Instant banger “Take Me Back to London” is a return to the sounds of ‘No. 6 Collaborations Project’ Review,” with UK rapper Stormzy spitting rhymes over a classic grime beat, and Sheeran straddling the line between singing and rapping in a way that avoids the morass of affected “urban” posturing, and owes much of its appeal to its lighthearted, uncalculated manner. Sheeran is a “singer-songwriter” after all, and it was only a matter of time before the inevitable return to form that finds expression in “Best Part of Me.” This is full coffee house fare, with intricate acoustic guitar and casually introspective lyrics about romantic neurosis. The song develops elegantly, with vocal harmonies and subtle rhythm changes making all the difference. When fellow singer-songwriter YEBBA takes a turn at vocals, her voice frames the melody in a whole new context, and her ending bit with Sheeran makes for a triumphant climax.
Such ambitious hopping between genres is a risky game, and the album is not without its occasional missteps. If Sheeran’s Spanish on “South of the Border” seemed forced, his foray into dancehall reggae stylings on the Justin Beiber-featuring “I Don’t Care” might induce cringes in people who are actually from the Caribbean. Beiber somehow sounds a little more convincing than Sheeran in such a role, and it comes across as a little hokey, sounding at times as if Sheeran has employed a formula with as little effort as possible. Then again, the melody is infectious, the romantic sentiment is universal, and the singing is, if affected, immaculately executed. Altogether, this is enough to justify the choice of the song as lead single. On the other hand, the latest of six singles so far, “Antisocial,” is a surefire standout, pairing Sheeran with the perennially larger-than-life Travis Scott. Sheeran returns to the “boy band voice” of “Cross Me,” but especially owns it here. He lets loose and ventures beyond the relative constraints of more traditional guitar and vocals songs like “Best Part of Me,” and truly shines in the process.
“Remember the Name” finds Sheeran going all the way with his hip-hop instincts, rapping over a light, guitar-centered backdrop in much the same way as artists like Matt Kearney, whose cross-genre reaches are divisive, but ultimately widely welcomed. When Sheeran raps, “Give me a song with Eminem and 50 Cent,” its sounds like a bit of a joke until, before you know it, both show up and sound right at home. The song is something of a throwback to the days when every month saw a new hit with a chorus from Nate Dogg. Sheeran, Eminem, and 50 Cent all share singing duties in a catchy chorus that salvages the collaboration from the pitfalls of jarring stylistic pairings. Next, “Feels” brings back the tropical vibes of “South of the Border,” although less overtly, with the entire song emanating naturally from the skeletal rhythms. Sheeran is on top of his game, delivering a melismatic R&B hook that capitalizes on ‘the feels” meme that has made its way into countless songs over the last year and change. Young Thug skirts about in his usual delightful Auto-tune tomfoolery, and UK rapper J Hus drops a verse with his deep voice balancing the timbres of the other two, for a dynamic, sunkissed track.
Ella Mai’s voice meshes impeccably with Sheeran’s on the sweet-spirited duet “Put It All On Me.” It’s a streamlined pop song, catchy upon first listen, with little touches like Sheeran’s hooted enunciation of a particular word making all the difference. There’s a natural chemistry between the two singers that rivals that of any other collaborations on the album. Sheeran loiters in sappy terrain for the next few songs, riding the wave and breaking into various colorful forms. There’s a turn back to dancefloor territory with “Nothing On You,” which adapts a distinctly London, vaguely garage-informed beat to a broader song template, and keeps the instant hooks flowing. This is Sheeran’s first song with Spanish vocals, courtesy of Paolo Londra, whose verse is short but sweet, offset by another UK emcee, Dave, who throws in his two cents with a provincial, but widely resonant drawl. Next, “I Don’t Want Your Money” is a breezy cut, built around the bona fide declaration, “I don’t want your money, baby / I just want your time.” Enigmatic R&B singer-songwriter H.E.R. takes the mic for the chorus, and manages to imbue enough personality into a mere two lines and scattered adlibs to make them seem plenty. There’s a winsome authenticity to this song, as lines like “I been away on the road for a little while” are written from Sheeran’s experience on what has been extrapolated to become the highest-grossing concert tour of all time.
“1000 Nights” picks up right where its predecessor left off, alluding to the amount of time spent on tour. Sheeran tries out another variation of rap-singing, this time getting the fusion down to a science, and packing a punch with appearances by Meek Mill and A Boogie wit da Hoodie, each of whom ground the track in a strictly hip-hop context that give Sheeran’s endearing, melodic meanderings more room to take full effect. “Way to Break My Heart” probes deeper into the teased lovelorn sentiments, and taps into the stuff of saccharine ‘80s balladry that the song’s title suggests, but reimagines it in a sleek contemporary packaging via production by Skrillex. For his part, Skrillex eschews his chainsaw bro-step theatrics for more restrained stylings in the tradition of his 2015 Beiber and Diplo collaboration “Where Are Ü Now,” and it’s a sound that befits the song. Finally, out of the blue comes the high-octane classic rock stomper that is “BLOW,” juxtaposing Sheeran with both Chris Stapleton and Bruno Mars for the album’s most ambitiously cross-genre collaboration. Over a Black Sabbath esque riff, Sheeran lets out such bar bombast as “I’m feelin’ like a bullet jumpin’ out a gun” and “You make me wanna make a baby, baby,” setting the stage for Stapleton, who brings a certain down-home grit and edge present nowhere else on the record. Mars follows suit, channeling the same spirit in a slickly R&B-informed rendering. Overall, this song encapsulates the stylistic breadth of the album, and best exemplifies the dynamism on display.
There’s no telling where Sheeran will go from here. Anyone in their right mind would have laughed upon hearing him declare his grand ambitions nearly a decade ago, but time has proven him rightfully confident in his abilities, and the world dutifully appreciative of his oeuvre. Needless to say, Sheeran’s work isn’t for the snobbier among us. The agency of his songwriting stems from a broad relatability that comes at the expense of chin-stroking stimulus and profundity. Naturally, these tendencies get liberally amplified on an undertaking of such magnitude as ”No. 6 Collaborations Project.” It’s hard to traverse the landscape of contemporary music so comprehensively without lapsing into the crevices of novelty music. The range of star power on the album requires a fluidity that calls for a limiting hit-and-run immediacy. That said, it’s plain to see what this album purports to be — a set of songs that spares us the filigree, trims the fat, and cuts right to the chase, demonstrating a masterful grasp of the sonic and lyrical underpinnings that transcend genres and strike a resounding, universal chord. To this end, it’s an undeniable success, abounding with enough readymade hits to keep the streams steadily coming.
”No. 6 Collaborations Project” is available July 12 on Apple Music