Before he broke through with 2011 single ‘The A-Team’, Ed Sheeran self-released an EP called ‘No.5 Collaborations Project’ featuring team-ups with grime stars including Wiley, Ghetts and Devlin. This belated follow-up is that EP’s older and much richer sibling: ‘No.6 Collaborations Project’ is a 15-track Spotify-playlist-in-waiting on which Sheeran duets with fellow superstars including Justin Bieber, Cardi B, Stormzy, and Bruno Mars, plus talented up-and-comers such as Ella Mai and Yebba. But is it any good? Here’s NME‘s track-by-track review.
1) ‘Beautiful People’ feat. Khalid
The album’s opener is classic Sheeran: he and Khalid sing about feeling like outsiders at a fancy L.A. party where ”they wanna know what you’re about”. Co-produced by Swedish pop genius Max Martin, it’s a super-catchy poolside bop, which delivers its first big hook, a ”we are, we are, we are” vocal refrain, within 10 seconds. Sheeran’s skills as a pop craftsman are on full display here, and when he sings about the ”prenups and broken homes” of the beautiful people he wants us to know he’s different from, it gives his usual everybro persona a welcome edge.
2) ‘South Of The Border’ feat. Camila Cabello and Cardi B
Savvy as ever, Sheeran teams with Cuban-American pop queen Camila Cabello for a ‘Shape of You’ rewrite, essentially, with on-trend Latin-pop inflections. Sheeran and Cabello flirt appealingly, but Cardi B steals it by hinting at cunnilingus with a reference to Michael Jordan’s fondness for sticking his tongue out on the basketball court, then delivering this fierce parting shot: ”You got a girl that could finally do it all / Drop a album, drop a baby, but I never drop the ball, uh”. ‘South Of The Border’ already sounds like another hit.
3) ‘Cross Me’ feat. Chance the Rapper and PnB Rock
Sheeran reminds us of his fundamental niceness on this naggingly catchy R&B jam. “If you cross her, then you cross me,” he sings on the chorus, underlining his loyalty to his “lady”. It’s fun hearing Chance the Rapper rhyme “faucet” with “CrossFit”, but Sheeran lets his less famous collaborator, Philly singer-rapper-PnB Rock, deliver the track’s best hook on the pre-chorus. Which, in fairness, is a pretty nice thing to do.
4)’Take Me Back To London’ feat. Stormzy
When they performed an “official remix” of ‘Shape Of You’ at the 2017 Brit Awards, it was clear that Sheeran was giving Stormzy a leg-up. Two years later, after his triumphant Glastonbury headline set, Stormzy inevitably feels like the main event here. “I don’t mix with the glitz and the glam / All these stupid pricks on the ‘gram“, he raps, offering a more memorable spin on the old ‘fame hasn’t changed me’ shtick than Sheeran, who sing-raps flatly about wanting “a packet of crips and my pint“. And really, what kind of an everybro humblebrags about “grossing half a billi on the Divide Tour”?
5) ‘Best Part Of Me’ feat. Yebba
Singer-songwriter Yebba shines on Mark Ronson’s ‘Late Night Feelings’ LP; now she continues her rise by teaming with Sheeran for a romantic ballad that could become this album’s ‘Thinking Out Loud’. “My hair is thin and falling out of all the wrong places, I am a little insecure,” Sheeran sings, before wondering: “Why the hell she love me when she could have anyone else?” He’s definitely laying it on a bit thick, but that won’t stop 75,000 people from waving their phones in the air when he does it at Wembley Stadium.
6) ‘I Don’t Care’ feat. Justin Bieber
You know this one: it’s already been Number One, and it’s… fine. Still, it’s hard not to feel that a Sheeran-Bieber team-up co-produced by Max Martin should have been more undeniable, and could have been more sonically adventurous, too. As it stands, ‘I Don’t Care’ is such a blandly efficient encapsulation of current pop sounds, it’s got a bright future of being absolutely rinsed by Magic Radio from 2029 onwards.
7) ‘Antisocial’ feat. Travis Scott
Sheeran shows a slightly darker side on this trap-influenced collaboration with Travis Scott. “On something, on something, on something, I wanna riot,” he sings, presumably implying he’s fuelling this particular night out with more than a packet of crisps and a pint. It’s not entirely convincing, but you won’t care when the killer chorus hits.
8) ‘Remember The Name’ feat. Eminem and 50 Cent
Sheeran and Eminem collaborated effectively enough on their 2017 hit ‘River’, but this cheesy throwback jam (which features 50 Cent for added retro vibes) almost feels like a parody. “Yeah, I was born a misfit / Grew up 10 miles from the town of Ipswich”, Sheeran raps at the start, sounding as though he’s recruited David Brent to ghost-write his rhymes. There’s also an unappealing chippiness to proceedings as Sheeran pouts: “And if you thought I was good, well, then I’m better today / But it’s ironic how you people thought I’d never be great.” Clangers like this are part of the problem, sadly.
9) ‘Feels’ feat. Young Thug and J Hus
This slice of hip-hop lite is better: Sheeran delivers a slick chorus while Young Thug name-checks Wireless Festival and J Hus tells us he’s no longer a “Playboy heartbreaker” by promising: “I never ever treat you like Billie Jean.”
10) ‘Put It All On Me’ feat. Ella Mai
Sheeran and ‘Boo’d Up’ singer Ella Mai both sound terrific on this twinkly R&B duet, which has a super-catchy chorus sung in his impressive falsetto. If you enjoy pointing out when Sheeran songs sound like other people’s, you’ll eat up this track’s prominent keyboard refrain, which recalls the Bruce Hornsby sample that 2Pac used on ‘Changes’.
11) ‘Nothing On You’ feat. Paulo Londra and Dave
Here’s another track on which Sheeran reminds us he prefers his partner to partying. “All my friends are in the club, and they keep ringing my phone, but they ain’t got nothing on you,” he sings earnestly. Recruiting Argentinian rapper Paulo Londra, who’s also huge in Mexico and Spain, is the sort of smart move that’s made Sheeran a global superstar. But London’s Dave shines brightest here, offering sweet wordplay such as “The outfit, it cost bread, I got the matching loaf-ers”.
12) ‘I Don’t Want Your Money’ feat. H.E.R.
This horn-flecked duet with H.E.R., who delivers some lovely outro ad-libs, could be the album’s most revealing moment. Here, Sheeran gives us a glimpse of the difficulties he faces trying to be a husband and father while on tour. “30 minute conversation, ‘Boy, when you comin’ home? I can’t be buildin’ a family life here on my own,'” he sings. “Baby, I’m doin’ it for us, so why you takin’ that tone?”The result is peak Sheeran: a song which somehow feels relatable even though it really isn’t.
13) ‘1000 Nights’ feat. Meek Mill and A Boogie wit da Hoodie
This ‘touring is a slog’ song is less easy to love. First Sheeran comes off oddly ambivalent about his massive success, struggling: “I never thought it would get this big, but what does it matter? / Everything is already part of a plan.” Then he tries to remind us just how hard he’s worked for it. “Wetherspoon’s was an easy option to get a cheaper lunch and £2 pint / The waitress maybe leave her number,” he sings nostalgically. Wait till he finds out you can order at ‘Spoons on an app now!
14) ‘Way To Break My Heart’ feat. Skrillex
Co-written and produced with Skrillex and Sheeran’s ‘Shape Of You’ collaborator Steve Mac, this is prime 2019 pop craftsmanship. The marching band beat that creeps in almost without letting you notice it tempers the sappiness of the (admittedly excellent) melody, and Sheeran saves the real hook for the post-chorus. Even Sheeran deniers will find themselves humming this one.
15) ‘Blow’ feat. Chris Stapleton and Bruno Mars
In a way, it’s strange that Sheeran hasn’t tried a rock crossover song before: Michael and Janet Jackson showed in the ’80s that it can be an effective way of expanding your fanbase. Sheeran is obviously no Ozzy Osbourne, and when he sings “Talk to me, woman, you make me wanna make a baby,” it’s got to be a send-up of terrible hair metal come-ons. The squealing guitar solo might be tongue-in-cheek, too, so it’s probably best to take this one for what it is: a fun piece of dress-up, essentially Sheeran wearing faux-leather trousers and fingerless gloves he picked up at Camden Market.
In 10 or 20 years’ time, ‘No. 6 Collaborations Project’ could be the perfect time capsule of what pop was in 2019. It’s less an album, more a collection of savvy and generally savvy collaborations which blurs traditional genre boundaries unselfconsciously and acknowledges that Latin-pop is the sound of the near-future. Most of the time, it’s a credit to Sheeran’s songwriting skills and well-honed persona.