After years of writing delicate pop tunes, Ed Sheeran just wants to have fun. Gone are the days of making mathematical symbols as album titles (although maybe not; he still hasn’t made a project with the subtraction sign as the title). He’s now a happily married singer/songwriter, recently finding comfort in his position as one of the biggest superstars on the planet.
Through this life-altering trajectory, Sheeran has found a different route in his music. Evidently, the Englishman isn’t a slow jam sex-inducing artist anymore. No folks, Ed Sheeran is now a full-on rapper. He’s unapologetically reaching out to artists who follow the current trap trend we find ourselves a part of. Fellow crooners Travis Scott and Bruno Mars are featured on the album, as well as street legend Meek Mill; and gospel rhymer Chance the Rapper. Even Cardi B continues her endless road of guest verses on Sheeran’s master plan. All play a part, and only some leave a memorable footprint.
Sheeran calls on Fred Gibson (BTS, Clean Bandit, Pretty Much) for contemporary pop production on the majority of these tracks. The underground producer plays a jack-of-all-trades for No.6 Collaborations; curating a sound that fits all of these versatile artists. For “South of the Border,” Gibson implements a Latin flavor to the guitar melody. A sound that’s perfectly robust for Camilla Cabello’s vocals. The problem is Sheeran, who fails to find his footing thought the first half of the track. In the end, his biggest contribution is a primitive chorus, reminiscent of some of his prior hits (like “Shape of You” for example).
Scott’s patented 808 drums are inherently present on “Antisocial,” as is the iconic ad-libs (boy was it funny hearing Sheeran spit over Scott’s famous “straight up” lyric). It’s the awkward chemistry exuded between he two musicians that really lowers the moral of the song. Sheeran is rapping like he’s a high white kid trying to impress his friends comedically-while Travis is rapping about, well…nothing (I need room, I need room/Where you standin’ way too close/You might catch fumes, might catch fumes
When I zoom, when I zoom”).
The atmospheric drums on “Beautiful People” are clean and pristine, but definitely not mean. Khalid’s lo-fi aesthetic can’t find a lifeline throughout the second verse. It’s a radio hit for sure, but sounds more like a finisher than an intro. Sheeran tries to sound endearing here (“Inside the world of beautiful people/Champagne and rolled up notes/Pre-nups and broken homes”), but forgets about the struggle people outside his realm have to face everyday. If anything, he’s more nostalgic than socially conscious.
The brightest moments occur during the sessions between Sheeran and fellow British artists Stormzy (“Take Me Back to London”) and J Hus (“Feels”). It’s one of the few times where Sheeran appears on the same page as his counterpart-fighting bar for bar, melody for melody. “Take Me Back to London” especially finds Sheeran’s rapping much improved, both flow-wise and lyrically (“Give me a packet of crisps with my pint/I hit my friends up, go straight to the club”). It’s simple but genuine. These intermittent moments also shine a much-needed light on growing popularity of the British rap scene. A superstar like Sheeran could really help in that regards.
50 Cent and Eminem’s presence on “Remember the Name” surprisingly goes over better than expected. Though the song should really be titled “Remember the Good Ole’ Days.” The track and beat both sound like something straight out of 2006. It’s still good to hear something tolerable come out of Shady’s voice-a needle in a haystack if you will.
No.6’s greatest strength is catching lightning in a bottle. When something works, it’s a hit. When something doesn’t, it’s a flop. Simple as that. The aesthetic as a whole is sanitary, never allowing itself to fall too out of space. The edges are smooth, never jagged. Most importantly, Sheeran never feels at the forefront of these songs. Rather, he acts like a diehard fan at the front his favorite artist’s concert. He’s an admirer; failing to push the art forward.