Earlier this week, Ed Sheeran predictably scored yet another number one record, with his star-crammed new album ‘No. 6 Collaborations Project’. Featuring a ridiculously glitzy procession of guest artists (Justin Bieber, Travis Scott, Cardi B, Eminem, 50 Cent, and Stormzy to name just a few of them) it’s reportedly the fastest selling album of this year.
On top of that, he’s also pocketed a couple of extra Top Ten singles, just to fully cement his total chart domination. Pal, now you’re just showing off.
The ‘No. 6’ project is a sequel to Ed’s previous compilation, ‘No.5 Collaborations Project’, an EP he released as an unsigned artist in 2011. “We didn’t have a record label, it went out on [the digital music distribution platform] Tune Core and it was charting,” the EP’s producer Jake Gosling told the BBC. “The rest is the rest. It leveraged the whole situation into Ed signing a record deal and becoming the artist he is today.”
Posting about the success of his latest release, Ed celebrated the shared ethos of the follow-up. “Feel incredibly fortunate to be able drop [sic] an artistic project that’s outside my usual wheelhouse,” he wrote. Wait for it. “With zero promo”
Hold up a second… zero promo?!
Really? He promoted the shit out of it!
Unless… the near-constant bombardment of sponsored social media posts and television adverts over the last few weeks – was that simply a hallucination? Were the multiple ‘No. 6 Collaborations Project’ billboards pasted across various tube stations mere figments of my imagination, along with the dozen press releases that landed in my inbox? Who sent them, if not a PR team? The no-promo fairies?
And then there’s the high-budget music videos to accompany his singles, the on-stage plugs during his world tour, and a literal interview with Charlamagne Tha God that Ed Sheeran posted on his own YouTube account, in which he continually yabbers on about his new record. Ed Sheeran’s recent appearance next to a gigantic statue of himself, lounging on the grass in Moscow? What on earth was that, if not promo? And on top of everything else, Ed the no-promo bro starred in Danny Boyle’s new film Yesterday, as a comically uptight version of himself who takes part in ‘song-writing duels’. The film was set in Ed’s own Suffolk locale and concerned an everyman who pretends to write better songs than Ed Sheeran and got found out as a fraud. Cool.
It’s a bit disingenuous, and feels crudely engineered to fit neatly into his favourite narrative: Ed Sheeran is not like all the other pop stars.
He’s a down to earth lad, as flummoxed by the A-List parties as everyone else. He might be mates with people like Taylor Swift and be worth a reported £160 million, but he’s just a regular guy, honest.
And yeah, sure there was that story about how he got slashed across the face with a ceremonial sword because Princess Beatrice was trying to knight James Blunt at a ‘house party’ he attended at the Royal Lodge in Windsor. But he made that story up! For banter!
As he likes to remind everyone on a very regular basis, Ed was a bit of an outsider as a child; as he points out on his new Eminem and 50 Cent collaboration, he was “born a misfit, grew up 10 miles from the town of Ipswich”.
As he points out AGAIN elsewhere on the record, he’s different to all the “beautiful people” around him. He’s worked his way up to the top authentically, man, armed with nothing but an acoustic guitar, a loop pedal and the twinkle of a distant dream in his eye. Ed didn’t even go to university! Instead he slogged his way from the grimey pubs of Suffolk (are there many grimey pubs in Suffolk?) to consecutive sold out nights at Wembley Arena. If Ed can do it, anyone can.
Except that’s simply not true. Ed Sheeran might’ve been lucky to get his early break, but he’s also fortunate to be a well-off white man who had access to plenty of huge opportunities growing up (from music college to the National Theatre’s youth programme). Let’s be realistic.
It’s a strange narrative to continue spinning eight years after ‘No.5’. While Ed might’ve started out as an unsigned artist, that’s not the reality now. What is the point of Sheeran posing as some sort of do-it-yourself, homespun grassroots artist when he’s got the clout of a major label, a treasure-trove of industry contacts, gigantic budgets, a dedicated wall in his Suffolk home that serves as a “massive guestbook” and no less than TWENTY-TWO top selling pop and rap guest stars appearing on this record? Not to mention that several tracks enlist the pop production genius Max Martin; the man responsible for gigantic smash hits from Britney Spears, Ariana Grande, Katy Perry, and Taylor Swift.
What exactly about this endeavour is remotely unique or low-key? A record outside of Sheeran’s “usual wheelhouse” would be a surprise album of sea-shanties performed entirely on a kazoo, or a 30min dramatic reading of ‘Shape of You’ backed by white noise ‘sound installations’.
Meanwhile ‘No. 6 Collaborations Project’, couldn’t be closer to Sheeran’s usual sweet spot. These are songs that pilfer from grime, hip-hop and the current Latin pop wave, all primed for Spotify’s top trending playlists. The move has paid off. According to Spotify, the musician now features on 800 official playlists, and this month, he became the most listened-to artist on the whole platform.
The problem is that Ed Sheeran’s never-ending obsession with everyman authenticity is becoming jarring. It’s one thing sacking off designer costumes for live shows and singing about getting a packet of crisps with his pint when actually you live like a modern day Richie Rich.
Altogether different is claiming that he continues to be immensely successful by sheer fluke. Someone who boasts of grossing “half a billi’ on the Divide Tour” is not lucky, but privileged . No matter how furious Sheeran’s quest for relatability, he’s a man who lives on an entirely different planet. His “zero promo” boast only hammers that home.