Ed Sheeran’s ‘Collaborations’: So Many Guests, So Many Questions

Ed Sheeran is showing off on his new album, “No.6 Collaborations Project,” a set of 15 songs that feature a notably wide range of fellow stars — Justin Bieber, Meek Mill, Cardi B, H.E.R., and many, many more.

But there’s something gratuitous about the guest list, no? Rowdy American rappers, stern British grime stars, toothless pop singers, Chris Stapleton. It smacks of dilettantism. Flashiness. It’s a neckful of gold chains for a singer who ordinarily wears none.

But among centrist pop stars — the Taylors, the Katys, the Gagas and so on — no one is quite as adept amid a range of styles as Sheeran. He may have his roots in busking-folk pop, but he’s long collaborated widely and cross-genre.

But right near the top of this album, he stretches too thin. On “South of the Border,” which features Camila Cabello and Cardi B, Sheeran dips into a little Spanish, as has become de rigueur, and leans into the tired trope that going “south of the border” is where real freedom reigns. (Sheeran is British, so maybe for this euphemism he just means the Isle of Wight.)

But at least Cardi B is in on the joke (or maybe is the one telling it): “He want the little mamacita margarita/I think that Ed got a little jungle fever.”

But even though this record presents countless opportunities for Sheeran to fumble, there is something to be said for his choice to release it at all. Each of his previous three albums has gone platinum multiple times over. He is one of the few consistently bankable solo male global pop stars working. An album like this runs the risk of creating a distraction, or a disruption.

But maybe that’s a reflection of the current pop climate. There is less room than ever for conventional pop stars, ones who don’t play by the current pop 2.0 rule book. Sheeran isn’t diluting his success, but trying to widen its terms. A truly contemporary superstar needs to be able to speak various languages, literally and figuratively.

But can he rap, though? That’s a relevant question on this album, on which Sheeran inserts himself into increasingly unlikely formations. Rapping before, not after, Eminem on “Remember the Name” just seems like a smart policy. On “Take Me Back to London,” Sheeran lands just this side of absurd, boasting, “It’s that time, big Mike and Teddy are on grime.” Big Mike is Stormzy, the grime ambassador, who does an admirable job of rapping ferociously but politely enough to not upstage the host.

But Sheeran’s appreciation is sincere and wide-ranging, and on this album, he gives a platform to lesser-known artists like A Boogie Wit Da Hoodie and the Argentine rapper Paulo Londra. He builds a song around a sample of PnB Rock’s XXL Freshman freestyle from 2017. Very niche.

But for an album that’s meant to display comfort and fluency across a host of lines, there are several moments where Sheeran is singing about how he doesn’t fit in. “I’m at a party I don’t wanna be at,” he sings at the top of the hit “I Don’t Care,” a feather-light bop about social anxiety performed with Justin Bieber. “We don’t fit in well ’cause we are just ourselves,” he sings on “Beautiful People,” a duet with Khalid.

But Sheeran knows that’s not exactly right. He’s a titan, and in some moments here, he’s keen to remind everyone of it. “Grossed half a billi on the ‘Divide’ tour,” he barks on “Take Me Back to London.” Take that.

But Sheeran still wants to remind you what got him here. “Best Part of Me,” featuring the lithe jazz-soul singer Yebba, is vintage Sheeran — the push and pull between restraint and devastation, the vocals that seem to decay in real time, the damp sentimentality that nevertheless transcends.

But there are no shortage of post-Sheerans coming for his crown, so simply executing that sound is no longer enough. He’s got to apply that tenderness to songs with Young Thug and J Hus (the surprisingly straight-as-an-arrow “Feels”), and with Chance the Rapper and PnB Rock (the quixotically appealing electro-pop number “Cross Me”). And also perform a kind of raucous quasi-Aerosmith screamfest with Stapleton and Bruno Mars, “Blow.”

But no matter which way pop turns, Sheeran is not particularly worried. On “1000 Nights,” he leans in to his versatility and declaims, “Don’t need to read reviews if you can’t do the things I do.”

Ed Sheeran
“No.6 Collaborations Project”

Jon Caramanica is a pop music critic for The Times and the host of the Popcast. He also writes the men’s Critical Shopper column for Styles. He previously worked for Vibe magazine, and has written for the Village Voice, Spin, XXL and more. @joncaramanica

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