The Lowdown: It seems 2019 is the year of the conglomerate record: Next up to release a cacophony of an album, with as many artists crammed onto it as possible, is Ed Sheeran. The British chameleon of an artist, who built his career on being “not your average pop star,” now has more followers on Spotify than any other artist, and his third release, Divide, was 2017’s most popular album. Two years later, Sheeran has released No. 6 Collaborations Project, an altogether disingenuous and not-at-all-humble brag of an album. For very little purpose other than name-dropping, Sheeran enlists the help of some of music’s biggest musicians within a range of genres: Chris Stapleton, Justin Bieber, Chance the Rapper, Eminem, and Skrillex are just a few of the mega-stars featured on this 15-track record.
The Good: Say what you want about Ed Sheeran, but the man knows how to write a pop record. It might not be memorable, it sure as hell won’t even resemble authentic, but it will be inescapable. That’s the Brit’s M.O.; he writes the kind of song you have no recollection of ever listening to, and yet somehow the lyrics have permeated your brain, and then, all at once, you will know every word without any knowledge of it happening. The songs on No. 6 are no different. As we speak, the words of “I Don’t Care”, the album’s single that features Sheeran’s pal Justin Bieber, are slowly building a home in your brain, and soon, you’ll be unconsciously singing along to it. It’s almost impossible to be immune.
Although Sheeran is obsessed with people remembering that he raps, the strongest moments on the album are the ones that stray the furthest from hip-hop. On the last song on the record, “BLOW”, Sheeran, as he does best, morphs his sound to meet the stylings of Chris Stapleton. And surprisingly, it works (probably because Stapleton is one of the most talented musicians of this generation and Sheeran has very few lines — but still). There is also one flash, a brief, confusing moment on No 6. Collaborations Project, where Sheeran returns to his folk singer-songwriter roots and seems like less of an impermeable robot, where he recalls his earlier self, the one who released the immensely beautiful deluge of emotion that is Plus. Ironically, the song is titled “Best Part of Me”, and it features Grammy-award-winning singer YEBBA. This is the kind of collaboration that works most successfully for Sheeran: His undeniably steady voice intertwines with YEBBA’s mix of southern twang and rasp to create something beautiful. On it, he’s not clinging to cultural relevance by including popular rappers or other pop stars because the truth is that he doesn’t need to. This album, which already has broken records and will most likely continue to do so regardless of its content, proves that Sheeran could literally release an album comprised of him meowing the tunes of Christmas songs — and it would still chart.
The Bad: On No. 6 Collaborations Project, Sheeran has the reverse-Kanye effect: He has managed to bring out some of the worst in the artists featured on his tracks. Travis Scott’s verse is devoid of effort and energy, and it has rookie-level syntax. Chance delivers one of the weakest verses he’s written in years. And unless you’re paying strict attention, you’ll probably miss Young Thug’s verse on “Feels” because it is so lacking in presence. Perhaps it’s because Sheeran himself brings very little to the table; there’s entirely insufficient intensity for the other artists to feed off of.
Oh, and hey, did anyone pick up on the fact that Ed Sheeran is a super-chill, super-down-to-earth, and not-at-all typical Hollywood kind of guy? If the last two albums weren’t enough for you to grasp that entirely groundbreaking concept, you’re in luck; that’s the subject of at least a third of the songs on this record (See: “Beautiful People”, “Antisocial”, the opening of “Remember the Name”). Sheeran really, really wants you to know that he’s absolutely no fun at parties. Oh, and everyone is vapid and superfluous — except him, of course.
The rest of the tracks are equally disingenuous, but there are two moments that stand out as particularly egregious. First, there is the time that Sheeran sings three words in Spanish on the extremely corny “South of the Border”. In addition to its exceedingly tokenizing lyrics, it’s also downright confusing because Sheeran is from England, so which border he’s referencing is unclear. (This can only be compared to the time that the very Canadian Drake rapped about the President of the US to be #relatable.) And secondly, there is the relentlessly isolating moment where Sheeran, a millionaire musician, sings about his financial woes: “I’m busy stackin’ up the paper for the bad times,” he says on “I Don’t Want Your Money”.
The Verdict: There are moments of No. 6 Collaborations Project that show self-awareness. It seems Sheeran knows exactly what people are going to say about this album, and he doesn’t care. Despite its flaws, there is no objecting to the claim that Sheeran has got the pop-song formula down pat. And he’s versatile, or at least trying to be, which is essential in order to function in this pop landscape, where the most successful artists blend genres with ease (Lil Nas X, Lizzo). On this record, he’s taking a stab at, well, every genre. It doesn’t pay off, though, because this effort results in a sense of emptiness, an abyss of authenticity or real feeling. And that’s the problem: Despite writing “emotional” ballads for a huge part of his career, none of us really have any idea who Ed Sheeran is.
Essential Tracks: “Blow”, “Best Part of Me”