Tune In: No.6 Collaborations Project

Ed Sheeran’s naive days of thinking out loud are long gone. His newest album, “No. 6 Collaborations Projects,” oozes confidence as he shuffles from genre to genre accompanied by some of today’s biggest pop artists. While Sheeran expresses his versatility by trying other genres, he also exposes his shortcomings when his attempts don’t succeed. 

The record opens with “Beautiful People,” a collaboration with R&B star Khalid. With synthy soft vocals and melodies, Sheeran preaches a message against consumerism and social media’s toxicity. Later on in “I Don’t Care,” with Justin Beiber, he preaches about his insecurities dealing with other people at a party, saying he’d rather not have the attention.

While both these tracks are  among my favorite, Sheeran’s self-deprecating message seems a little extreme. He seems overly eager to remind listeners that he’s still the same guitar strumming local boy from Halifax, England, not to be associated with cash or fame.

A few tracks later,  Sheeran tosses aside this persona as he transitions to collaborations with hip hop artists. With the exception of “Antisocial” with Travis Scott, the  execution of these songs are surprisingly well done. “Cross Me,” my personal favorite, featuring Chance the Rapper and PnB Rock, felt reminiscent of R&B hits from the 2000s with its smooth grooves. 

It’s notable, however, that a majority of the load here is pulled by Sheeran’s collaborators. Artists like Eminem and Stormzy, a London grime rapper who has recently gained fame, bring tenacity after years of honing their crafts in songs like “Remember the Name” and “Take Me Back to London.” Sheeran undoubtedly lags behind. 

Not only is Sheeran’s voice ill-suited for rapping, his verses completely clash with his previous self-depreciation. He  drops humblebrags in those songs, boasting in “Take Me Back to London”: “But that’s my fault / Grossed half a billi’ on the Divide Tour / Yes, I ain’t kidding, what would I lie for?” (While Sheeran may have exaggerated that figure, he did make an eye watering $432 million dollars on the  tour). In “Remember the Name,” he preemptively strikes out at anyone who dares criticize his rapping, saying “I never was a sick kid, always dismissed quick ‘Stick to singing, stop rappin’ like it’s Christmas.”

Besides his questionable rhymes, Sheeran can’t pick a side. It would be much easier to appreciate this album if Sheeran didn’t pair his self-depreciation with humblebrags about how “gifted” he is. The fact of the matter is that few singers have had successful careers as rappers (with the notable exception of Lauryn Hill) and Sheeran won’t be joining them anytime soon. 

That isn’t to say his crossovers into other genres aren’t successful. The second best track after “Cross Me,” in my opinion, is “Blow”: reminiscent of a Led Zeppelin head-banger, featuring  Chris Stapleton and Bruno Mars. Though greatly augmented by expert production, Sheeran’s voice feels more natural in this setting. The energetic instrumentals reminded me of the emergence of alternative rock and allows Stapleton in particular to really shine. 

Other collaborations such as  “Put it All On Me” with Ella Mai and “I Don’t Want Your Money” with H.E.R. suggest that Sheeran works well with R&B. “Put it All On Me,” feels smooth and effortless, thanks to Mai’s contemporary R&B style. Meanwhile, “I Don’t Want Your Money” has more laid-back swagger and funk, reminding me of R&B artist Ciara. Yet again I feel that skillful vocals from Mai and H.E.R. contribute more to their tracks than Sheeran does. 

“Divide,” Sheeran’s album released two years ago, is  easily his most emotional and successful to date. In comparison, “No. 6 Collaborations Project” feels more like a victory lap as Sheeran tries to avoid peaking. Undoubtedly, it shows promise and does Sheeran’s versatility some justice. However, given that Sheeran has also had his “Plus” and “Multiply” albums, his next might as well be called “Subtract” if he doesn’t change course soon.