In 2011, a few months before his career exploded and he took the mantle as the world’s most successful busker, Ed Sheeran put out an EP called No.5 Collaborations Project, a series of duets with established artists from the UK’s grime scene. Eight years, three multi-platinum albums (Plus, Multiply, and Divide), and hundreds of sold-out arenas later, he returns to the guest-heavy format with No.6 Collaborations Project, an album guided by the logic of a DJ Khaled album or the Suicide Squad OST, which is to say an all-star event engineered for maximum commercial impact.
No.6 leverages an almost unprecedentedly batshit list of superstar feature artists, including Travis Scott, Justin Bieber, Cardi B, Eminem, 50 Cent, Chance the Rapper, Camila Cabello, Young Thug, Skrillex, Chris Stapleton, Bruno Mars, Stormzy and others, all gathered to frame Sheeran as not merely a globetrotting acoustic troubadour, but a dynamic pop artist fluent in hip hop, R&B and dancehall. Yet, amid what could be a messily ambitious gamble, and its only antidote — the loving embrace of his wife, Cherry.
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Sheeran has always presented himself as a Jon Lajoie-style everyday, regular, normal guy at heart. This identity is more pronounced than ever on No.6. He spends a significant portion of the album dwelling on his hatred of parties—he stiff-arms “Lamborghini and rented Hummer” culture on the opener “Beautiful People,” asks people not to touch him in the club on “Antisocial,” and professes the joy of leaving the function to go be with his girl on “I Don’t Care.” The thesis of No.6 is that celebrity (especially when coupled with introversion) is a terrible curse. Sheeran can’t help but repeatedly name-drop the far-flung cities he goes to and brag about the obscene money he’s raking in (“grossed half a bill on the Divide Tour”), but he makes it clear that he’d much rather be home alone with Cherry. “’Cause I don’t care when I’m with my baby, All the bad things disappear.”
Sheeran’s unobtrusively sweet voice easily slips between genres, but he struggles to connect with many of his A-list guest artists, deepening the album’s isolated mood. This is partly due to a litany of mailed-in features; Meek Mill and A Boogie wit da Hoodie both sound like they need a nap on their respective verses on “1000 Nights.” But Sheeran’s creative risks also tend to sour the album’s most promising collaborations, like when he utters the words “te amo mami” opposite Camila Cabello on the “Shape of You” redux “South of the Border,” or when he announces that he and Stormzy are “on grime” on “Take Me Back To London.” No.6 is defined in large part by Sheeran’s earnest attempts to incorporate hip hop styles and signifiers into his music — a Scotch snap here, a Nate Dogg pastiche there, a Migos-inspired ad-lib everywhere—but it’s too big a stretch for him to convincingly pull off.
Sheeran communicates his affection for Cherry through impassioned repetition. In the context of his crippling fame, his persistent yearning for her company is surprisingly heartening; it injects No.6 with a gravity not present in his depictions of sex and, especially, drug use (“You don’t know what’s in my brain…”). On “I Don’t Want Your Money,” he describes the stresses his touring schedule places on his relationship with Cherry, and in the process reminds us that he’s as lovesick and needy as the rest of us, despite all his money, fans, and famous friends. In moments like these, Sheeran succeeds in painting himself in sharper focus—the superstar in crisis whose only salvation is marital bliss.