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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.
Even the potentially cringe-worthy trifecta of Ed, Eminem, and 50 Cent manages to be an enjoyable listen, with the ‘90s-style beat paying homage to the era when those two stars reigned supreme. Sheeran’s verse works double time, delivering the news that he married his longtime girlfriend, Cherry Seaborn, by referring her to his wife publicly for the first time, and opening the door for him to venture farther into rap by referencing past advice that he should “stick to singing.” As for the guests, Eminem contributes one of his best verses in a while, certainly better than the bars he spits on the song with Sheeran on his own album, “River.”
Venturing outside of hip-hop and into R&B, Ella Mai and H.E.R. both make appearances, and while the former’s is pretty boring, the latter track, “I Don’t Want Your Money,” is a particularly moving indictment of the temptation the rich and famous face to use money as a stand-in for quality time in relationships. Sheeran’s naked assessment of his own failure to show up in his relationship when it matters offers interesting insight into what has been a very private relationship to date.
And even if the songs with famous rappers are the most eye-catching, the strangest yet most successful juxtaposition on the record might be “Blow,” a track that combines the talents of Bruno Mars and Chris Stapleton to deliver a southern rock anthem infused with enough soul to impress both Stapleton and Mars fans. In the experimental video, female musicians lip sync to the parts sung by the men, further indication that Sheeran is attempting to use his massive platform to draw attention to the inequalities of representation in the music industry. Watching the video only makes me feel sad though, as there is no massive female supergroup in rock that is equivalent to this; it simply doesn’t exist. And the voices behind these female avatars are still male, so the video ultimately falls short even if it is thought-provoking.
Sheeran is the rare position of both dictating the current landscape of pop, as one of the rare massively successful male stars existing outside the bounds of hip-hop, and being informed by the most influential of the genre’s many outliers. For instance, the introductory track on the album, “Beautiful People,” features Sheeran and still-rising pop star Khalid lamenting the pressure of fame and celebrity culture, distancing both stars from the trappings of the industry they’ve both had enormous success in.
“That’s not who we are / We are not beautiful,” they sing. As the video ticks past 30 million views in just two weeks, it’s hard not to quibble with their purported distance from the star-making machine. But if Sheeran is going to use his massive platform to put on the likes of diverse and deserving artists like Khalid, Camila, H.E.R., Stormzy, and Chris Stapleton, it’s all but impossible not to be impressed. Beauty may be in the eye of the beholder, but power speaks in numbers. On this project, Sheeran is quite literally sharing the wealth, and that’s the best, most effective way for a rich, successful white man to put his money where his mouth is.
No. 6 Collaborations Project is out now via Asylum Records. Get it here.
Ed Sheeran is a Warner Music artist. Uproxx is an independent subsidiary of Warner Music Group.