Ed teams up with the cream of pop and rap talent on his collaborations album. Resistance is futile
With their eyes lit up like neon dollar signs, a cross section of pop's upper echelon (22 in total) line up to collaborate with everyone’s favourite everyman. As you might expect, the results vary wildly in quality, from by now formulaic ballads to genre-hopping adventurism.
Of course, it’s a sign of Ed’s Midas touch that he can attract prestige artists to a collaborations album in a pop chart already overrun by crossover duets and where the word "featuring" seems to be some kind of shorthand for guaranteed success.
He ranges from the local (Stormzy) to the transatlantic (Camila Cabello, Eminem), without forgetting to big up emerging names like Glastonbury scene-stealer Dave. He also blithely ignores the advice given in the recent Danny Boyle/Richard Curtis Beatles fantasy Yesterday to leave the rapping "to the brothers" and tackles rapid-delivery couplets without disgracing himself at all.
You can’t blame him for not trying to stretch himself. On Take Me Back to London he trades one liners with man of the moment Stormzy on what is a rather sanitised grime track, with Ed’s "I’m back in the biz with my guys, give me a packet of crisps and a pint," sounding rather pallid beside London star’s more confrontational observations.
He’s on safer ground on Best Part of Me, an affecting acoustic ballad with the delicately-voiced Yebba on which Ed bemoans his thinning hair, crossed eyes, and fluctuating weight. It’s a song you can hear any number of US MOR artists turning into massive hits of their own.
I Don’t Care with Justin Bieber is another track decrying celebrity excess and while it may already be a massive hit, even repeated plays fail to yield the kind of knock out melody that has become Sheeran’s calling card. Worse still, what should be an intriguing three way rap battle Remember the Name featuring Eminem and 50 Cent merely sounds like one of the extra cringey bits on one of Robbie Williams’ solo albums.
Elsewhere, the claustrophobic club-centric Antisocial with Travis Scott sees Ed getting the nearest thing that he can get to anger, while Cross Me, a dexterous duet with Chance The Rapper, fizzes with effervescence and an assured touch. Soppiness is also present and correct in Way to Break My Heart, a mid-tempo mood piece enlivened by Shrilex’s exacting, militaristic beats.
Lyrically, Ed seems mainly consumed with disavowing the unimaginable wealth and fame that success has brought, social anxiety and some uncharacteristic - but possibly tongue in cheek - bragging about how damn big he’s become in the past few years.
Of real surprises, there are very few. Blow is a sharp detour from the R `n’ B grime lite on offer for most of the album and takes a crunchy Led Zeppelin-style riff and sees Bruno Mars, another artist who's become a grimly bland heat-seeking hit machine, and Chris Stapleton doing a Lenny Kravitz impression, which seems present merely to confirm that yup, Ed can do any genre he turns his hand to.
Still it’s a sign of just how very far Sheeran has come, from soppy balladeer of aching romance to world-conquering, genre-hopping megastar. Despite this defiant sprawl of an album, the latest from the wunderkind is unlikely to recruit any new fans. This hugely likable citizen of the world rarely sounds uncomfortable or out of his depth on No.6 Collaborations Project.
Alan Corr @CorrAlan