When Ed Sheeran dropped No.5 Collaborations Project in 2011, he was still desperately trying to get the attention of record labels. The EP is disquietingly dark and devoid of the gentle, rolling romance that would become Sheeran’s bread and butter. Eight years and half a billion dollars later, Sheeran has attempted to come crawling back to his collaborative roots, but the desperation, the vulnerability and the intensity have long been absent.
For No.6 Collaborations Project, Sheeran has dialed every number in his contacts and invited game-changing musicians to feature on a slew of new tracks. It’s a stacked set of artists, including Cardi B, Bruno Mars, Camila Cabello and Travis Scott.
And Eminem, Justin Bieber, Ella Mai, 50 Cent, Chris Stapleton and Chance the Rapper.
The track list contains considerable genre variation — Latinx sounds, hip-hop, rap and classic rock all find unlikely homes here — but there is little fluctuation in quality. For better or for worse, each song sounds as good as the last. Some tracks lean toward bloat (Cardi B, for example, is shoehorned into Sheeran’s duet with Cabello), but this can produce an intriguing effect, such as the particular pleasure generated by the blending of Eminem and 50 Cent’s contributions on “Remember the Name.” The track is reminiscent of the anthem a group of villains might sing after they agree to all band together to dismantle a protagonist wearing a unitard.
The most ecstatic fans of No.6 Collaborations Project will likely be the same people who defend the necessity of the remake of “The Lion King,” on the basis that entertainment value is a sufficient reason to make something, regardless of quality. And much like trailers for “The Lion King,” Sheeran’s latest work is gorgeous and empty, exciting and cringeworthy. It’s as if he’s discovered a fascinating new bacteria but sprayed it with Windex before it could be properly studied.
Sheeran boldly commits to experimentalism, which can mean one of two things. Either he’s displaying a remarkable musical maturity and a willingness to evolve — or he’s a sellout beyond reproach, a musical bottom feeder munching on the leftover melodies of a vast soundscape. Sheeran is one of few artists who could easily be suspect for either scenario.
There’s a lyrical shift that would suggest that the latter possibility is at play — this is the least bashful Sheeran has ever been about his immense wealth and success. The new attitude can be abrasive for fans who view Sheeran as an “authentic,” down-to-earth guitarist, but really, it makes a lot of sense.
It’s a transition not unlike the one Bruno Mars underwent from Doo-Wops & Hooligans to 24K Magic, in which forlorn croons about a lover scorned were substituted with extravagant tales of luxury and desire. Perhaps it’s fitting then that Mars features as one of Sheeran’s collaborators on the show-stopping hard rock track “BLOW,” a palpably absurd song with merit that is contingent upon a listener’s capacity for the suspension of disbelief.
Sheeran wants to play at rock star and rapper, at debonair and muscleman, like a high school theater kid in the costume shop trying on different wigs set aside for other actors. None of them quite fit, but he has the confidence to convince and the wherewithal to bring on top talent to lend credibility to his performance. Naturally, there’s no unifying sound, and the album is tonally incoherent — although each track is united in its potential to secure Sheeran as the Super Bowl halftime show headliner.
The least surprising thing about the album is that every song is incessantly catchy and spotlessly polished. There’s not a stray snap of a guitar string nor the slightest foray into ambitious territory, only an array of unapologetically chart-topping pop songs. The album’s greatest flaw is its refusal to risk failure. And with so few mistakes, there is little for listeners to learn.
Contact Shannon O’Hara at [email protected].