The idea that no man is an island has never been truer than in the realms of contemporary pop and urban music, where no single can truly be said to exist unless it has a “feature” on it. Ed Sheeran has brought that longstanding trend to its natural apotheosis with his feature-length features project, “No.6 Collaborations Project.” It sports 15 songs that all have “featuring…” credits, although that count doesn’t begin to do the math on how many all-stars are crammed in, since the pop star doesn’t ever include just one rapper on a number when two will do. It may be the first major mainstream pop album that makes you feel like gulping some Gatorade from the exhaustion just of reading through the track list.
In its intended goal, you can’t say it comes up short: “No.6 Collaborations Project” is an impressive stunt both of craftsmanship and virtual Rolodox-twirling. Hey, you can’t spell “featuring” without “feat,” right? But in its herculean embrace of teamwork, it suffers uniformly from the same flaw that infects nearly every other recent one-off that embraces the F-word in its credits: There’s no real trading off, and never for a moment do you imagine any of these people were in the same room. With such an impressive friends list, you hope for at least the illusion of chemistry somewhere along the way, but it’s the ultimate Dropbox duets album.
Would it be any surprise to say that the results among these 15 efforts are… scattershot? Khalid is a good match for Sheeran on the opening “Beautiful People,” as they both get emo about not wanting to get caught up in the trappings of celebrity and glamor. But then, of course, Sheeran invites in a lot of hip-hop stars that spend their verses boasting about the trappings of celebrity and glamor. With Khalid, Sheeran is knocking “Lamborghinis and their rented Hummers… champagne and rolled-up notes.” But in the very next track, Cardi B is saying, “You want the lips and the curves, need the whips and the furs/ And the diamonds I prefer, and my closet his and hers.” The Eminem/50 Cent track eventually zeroes in on “Balenciaga saga, I’m in Bergdorf ballin’.” Paulo London and Dave take “take Chanel to Chanel for a shopping spree…I’m a fashionista, she in Fashion Nova… The outfit, it cost bread, I got the matching loafers.” For somebody who spends the opening track not wanting to become one of the beautiful people, Sheeran sure populates the rest of the album with mad materialists… and manages to out-boast Stormzy on their shared track, when we learn that he “grossed half a bill on the Divide Tour,” lyrics ripped direct from the (Pollstar) headlines.
Sometimes too many cooks spoil the broth. Sheeran and Camila Cabello are having a perfectly serviceable, steamy, bilingual duet on “South of the Border” when for no apparent reason Cardi B crashes the party as a third wheel, making the implicit cunnilingus undertones explicit (“Legs up and tongue out, Michael Jordan”) and making you wonder if Cabello really knew she was signing up for a threesome at the beginning of the song. Eminem’s turn on “Remember the Name” feels like a quick throwaway on the way to getting to 50 Cent and doesn’t make nearly as much of an impression as the rapper’s guest shot on the recent Logic album. It’s not just the hip-hop-fueled tracks that are overloaded with a cavalcade of stars. The closing “Blow,” with Chris Stapleton and Bruno Mars, sounds intriguing on paper, but turns out to be a lower-than-lowbrow hair-band pastiche that doesn’t work any better just because all three talents are in on the same “Rock of Ages”-style joke.
But there are less bogged down moments. Sheeran fares well with the handful of women on this album — not just Cabello, before their tryst is rudely interrupted, but in more balladic turns YEBBA (a protégé of his as well as Sam Smith’s, whose debut album we’re still waiting for years later), Ella Mai and H.E.R. You may find yourself Sheeran had spent more of the project veering toward the distaff side and less hanging out with the boys in the club.
That said, there are at least a couple of strong sides with the guys, too — one with Chance the Rapper, who goes gallant on the woman-boosting “Cross Me,” and Travis Scott, who’s more of a Goofus on “Antisocial,” a mood piece that’s no less enjoyable for living up to its crotchety name. It’s Chance who has the album’s best rap with a nearly comical level of feminist respect: “Death stare, cross arm, runnin’ your mouth like a faucet/ But you don’t know that my girl been doin’ CrossFit… / No one say hi to me without her/ Better pay your respect to the queen/ Better do that shit without a flirt / Gotta respect the HBIC.” That much respect for a significant other is a welcome respite from the solipsistic career self-updates of so many of the other cameos.
Ultimately, though, the concept of having a nonstop parade of guests may really be a means to a different end — that end being Sheeran proving he can do a whole album’s worth of “Shape of Yous.” It’s not that every song here is exactly trying to replicate that sound, although there are moments in the instrumental beds of “South of the Border” and especially “Feels” that come almost comically close to self-plagiarism. It’s more in how “No.6 Collaborations” mostly foregoes the sensitive singer/songwriter stuff that has been the bread and butter of most past efforts in favor of elevating the couple of big R&B-pop bangers that were the spice on those records into almost the full meal. If you’re in love with his body — of work, that is — this is going to seem more like a side project.
Sheeran does get personal on a few occasions, aside from reporting his box-office gross, to note the effect that all that touring might be having on his real life. That’s the theme of “I Don’t Want Your Money,” his hookup with H.E.R., who seems to be playing the role of Sheeran’s recent bride. There’s some real candor in Sheeran trying to explain why he’s stockpiling riches now, even as relationships might pay a price: “Baby, I’m doin’ it for us, so why you takin’ that tone?/ Like I’m the bad guy/ Ithought it would have made me better in your dad’s eyes/ I’m busy stackin’ up the paper for the bad times/ ‘Cause, baby, you never know/ I’m poppin’ right now, but there will come a day when I won’t.” The song is set to the album’s most traditional R&B groove, and you might only wish that, in a song that aims to give the woman in Sheeran’s life her voice, H.E.R. actually had more than a few solo vocal lines to represent her.
A Boogie Wit Da Hoodie then shows up in the following number to add a crasser take on what it’s like to be on the road too long, away from your woman: “Cheated on my girlfriend with a fiendish bitch… / And I’ve been on the road, so I know she couldn’t call my line / And I see she got her ass and titties done for a thousand likes.” Thanks for sharing, A Boogie Wit Da Hoodie. Maybe this stands as a warning to Sheeran that he needs to get off the road and get home sooner than later… not just for the sake of his gal, but also for the sake of fans who need another set of songs as good and deeply felt as the ones that preceded this.
“No.6 Collaborations Project”