The UK pop star’s compilation album features big worldwide names in a sometimes nice and catchy but hopelessly transparent attempt at a hip-hop crossover.
Before breaking through the mainstream with this 2011 single “The A Team,” Ed Sheeran self-released an EP titled No. 5 Collaborations Project which featured team-ups with various grime stars. Eight years later, Sheeran’s fourth studio album, No. 6 Collaborations Project is that EP’s older and much riser sibling – a 15-track Spotify-playlist-in-waiting on which Sheeran duets with various superstars across the world including Justin Bieber, Cardi B, Bruno Mars, Chris Stapleton, Eminem and UK hip-hop stars like Stormzy, Dave and J Hus and even talented up-and-comers such as Ella Mai and Yebba. The album acts as a sort of tribute to his own ongoing domination over the charts – not just as an artist and musician but as a songwriter.
The lead single “I Don’t Care,” which features Justin Bieber is probably the best effort on No.6, a vector of the dancehall-lite rhythms that Sheeran began to experiment with his third studio album (and lead single off that album “Shape of Water”). The second single, “Cross Me,” which features Chance the Rapper and a hook fashioned out of a sample of PnB Rock’s 2017 XXL Freshman cypher. Both tracks are great examples of how Ed has mastered the art of mainstream pop while also injecting his own style in lyrics and themes. The album opens up with the heavy-handed, Khalid-assisted reminder that Sheeran is not one of the “beautiful people,” a catchy calculation appropriate for the sad-pop that is currently dominating the charts. “Antisocial” with Travis Scott features his signature skittering drums, a straightforward hip-hop track.
The album is mostly defined by banality but there are some bizarre moments. “South of the Border” with Camila Cabello and Cardi B is one of those moments. It’s a Latin-pop fantasy where Sheeran fantasizes about “caramel thighs” and “curly hair” with Cardi B suggesting that “Ed got a little jungle fever.” Um what? The idea here: the raceplay points directly to the elephant in the room or in this case, the elephant of Sheeran’s career. Though Sheeran built his fame on confessional, earnest acoustic guitar songs, Sheeran loves black music and he definitely wants you to know it. And unfortunately, on No.6, the apprecation largely manifests as the belief that he Sheeran himself is a competent rapper. On the track, “Take Me Back to London” which features Stormzy, Sheeran’s flow bears a suspicious resemblance to “Bitch Better Have My Money”-era Rihanna. There and elsewhere, his raps are cringey and simplistic.
Being a fan of rap and hip hop music doesn’t mean you necessarily can rap or understand it greatly. Alongside big name rappers like 50 Cent and Eminem, Sheeran sounds even more out of his depth on the track “Remember the Name.” It’s this track among other hip hop based ones that confirms that Sheeran is better off just sticking within his skillset. “Feels,” which features and unites Young Thug and J Hus and “Put It All On Me” which offers Ella Mai a warm piano to shine over, are legitimately irresistible tracks… only because of the featured artist.
With 150 million albums sold and dozens of arena-headling tour dates since the release of No.5, Sheeran has employed a similar ethos but with the expanded budget and superstar access of his status as one of the world’s best-selling artists. Like the original collaboration project, much of No 6 is as bad in theory as it is in practice. Pop music has always drawn from black cultural expression and it has become increasingly absorbent in recent years. As hip-hop and various diasporic genres have framed the dominant modalities of contemporary radio, inspiration and appropriation have become business moves as much as artistic choices. But few releases have been as baldly transparent and destined for ubiquity as Sheeran’s most recent release without the finesse or cultural fluency.
Essential Track(s): “Beautiful People” (featuring Khalid), “I Don’t Care” (featuring Justin Bieber), “Put It All on Me” (featuring Ella Mai)
Released: July 12, 2019.
Genre(s): Pop, hip hop, R&B.
Label: Asylum, Atlantic.
Featured Artist(s): Khalid, Camila Cabello, Cardi B, Chance the Rapper, PnB Rock, Stormzy, Yebba, Justin Bieber, Travis Scott, Eminem, 50 Cent, Young Thug, J Hus, Ella Mai, Paulo Londra, Dave, H.E.R., Meek Mill, A Boogie wit da Hoodie, Skrillex, Bruno Mars, Chris Stapleton.
Tour: Ed Sheeran World Tour 2019-2020
Vinyl Edition: Yes - through various outlets (as of publishing).