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What’s the move when you’re the biggest white, male pop star in the world during an era where the music industry is reckoning with representation in earnest for the first time? Collaborate, baby. On his latest release, No. 6 Collaborations Project, Ed Sheeran ventures into hip-hop, EDM, and even country-rock, along with plenty of songs that stick closer to his home turf of pop, by bringing in some of the biggest names from these respective genres to inform his sound. In fact, No. 6 is actually a follow-up to an early independent EP from 2011, No. 5 Collaborations, a release that featured a bevy of UK rappers Sheeran was a fan of, and without “songs about girls.”
For those who only know Sheeran from the big pop hits, or have judged him (fairly or not) for his acoustic folk roots, it might be surprising to learn he worked with an underground rappers like Wiley, Ghetts, and JME almost ten years ago. Preconceptions about Sheeran don’t hold up when it comes to this new set of collaborations either, as Ed has gifted us the surprising, infectious power of Camila Cabello and Cardi B on a single track, and still manages not to be eclipsed by either star. At first I was disappointed that his biggest song with female stars was focused on sex, but Cardi and Camila express their own desire and assert sexual dominance in a way that flips the script from objectification to empowerment, and includes Cardi’s best mic drop yet: “You got a girl that can finally do it all / Drop an album, drop a baby / But I never drop the ball.”
If you can manage to get that song off repeat, there’s plenty of other unexpected appearances here — and it’s even more remarkable how often they work. The early singles are still huge standouts on the album; “Cross Me” with PnB Rock and Chance The Rapper is a bonafide contender for song of the summer, and “I Don’t Care” with Justin Bieber is the kind of loved-up antisocial ode to a partner who makes any circumstance bearable that is almost universally relatable. Each of these singles is an instant earworm, showcasing Sheeran’s pop expertise while also highlighting Bieber and Chance. And the fact that all involved have been recently married ties the tracks into reality, giving the sentiments expressed an extra edge.
In a series of intimate video interviews with Charlamagne Tha God, Sheeran shows the radio host around his home in England and introduces him to elements of British culture, while simultaneously talking about his love and respect for hip-hop. The sheer amount of rap on this album is a defining facet of the release, and stars of the moment like Travis Scott, Stormzy — currently one of the most popular young British rappers — Young Thug, J Hus, Meek Mill, and A Boogie Wit Da Hoodie all appear in various combinations that don’t feel forced or reverse engineered in any way.
According to Sheeran, everyone who appears is an artist that he listens to enough to play it in the car. “For me this is a compilation album of artists that I am a fan of,” he told Charlamagne. “Music I felt like, at the time, I wanted to make. My rule for it was if I had it and I play it in my car, I’m working with them.” The project functions both to gives listeners and longtime fans insight into Sheeran’s taste, while also providing perspective on how he’s looking to spread his musical wings after achieving success within a very specific set of sonic parameters. For hardcore Sheeran fans, this album will probably introduce them to artists they might not have encountered before, and those coming to the record strictly because of the guests might be surprised at how well Ed holds his own against the biggest stars on the planet.