Sunday, July 14, 2019

album review: 'no.6 collaborations project' by ed sheeran

So I brought this up originally on Billboard BREAKDOWN a month or so ago and I think it's important to state it here to provide some context: sometimes if you're an artist and you finally get the clout, popularity, and influence to create your dream project, it's worthwhile going back to when you first conceived of this dream and ask whether it was a good idea to begin with. I'm not saying this is an easy task - it demands self-awareness, the willingness to acknowledge your roots but also how far you've come, and will likely not be helped by the crowd of enablers you've accumulated thanks to your success - but it's one worth doing.

Now if you're an Ed Sheeran fan at this point you're probably a bit scandalized - he's proven himself time and time again that he can work with other acts, from writing to singing alongside them, why shouldn't he be allowed to curate a massive collaborative venture as a natural expansion from the EP he self-released in 2011? And if me saying that out loud didn't highlight at least some level of ridiculousness to this whole affair, it should come in understand what No.5 Collaborations Project was, an independent fusion of his brand of pop folk with a slew of grime acts that are not common names stateside. And while it becomes abundantly obvious that Ed Sheeran's writing has tightened up considerably since the beginning of the decade... well, it's leaner and darker and surprisingly cohesive, something that I didn't expect at all would be the case for this new album, which spans from Justin Bieber to Eminem, Stormzy to Skrillex, Chris Stapleton to Young Thug and Cardi B! And given that I've had kind of mixed results with the singles he's released thus far... look, I expected this to be a mess, or at the very least nowhere close to his best - when you have too many cooks in the kitchen, that happens. But okay, what did we get from No.6 Collaborations Project?

So here's a strange paradox: this is actually a pretty easy album to discuss, mostly because on some level it's doing exactly what Ed Sheeran wants, clearly a low-stakes dream project that's more built for individual singles than any coherent point. As such, it's better to judge a project like this as a singles compilation, grab that songs that work, and get out, especially given that the easiest way to determine any song's quality is whether they have chemistry with Ed Sheeran or whether the idea was good in the first place... which basically amounts to a mixed bag at best and a mess with a few better than expected highlights at worst. Absolutely disposable and I can't see anyone claiming this is their favourite Ed Sheeran album, but it's nowhere close to as bad as some people are claiming it is, mostly trying to propagate the wave of backlash that Sheeran's been courting for the most of the decade.

And to be fair here, it's not like he hasn't earned some real criticism, mostly tied to his rapping - yes, Sheeran, I'm glad you've noticed that people prefer you to sing, but that's more because you're better at it and when you try you've got organic firepower. The funny thing is that I've never thought Sheeran was a bad rapper - he's got an idiosyncratic but technically proficient style that can slip towards corniness, but the larger issue here is that Sheeran tends to use his rapping to assert his greatness and success, and given how this is not his natural range, his flaws become all the more glaring especially when you put him alongside legit MCs. Granted, he comes out a little better than most because you can tell some of his rap guests are slumming it - Cardi doesn't impress on 'South Of The Border', nor does Young Thug on 'Feels', and while 'Remember The Name' is a more tolerable Eminem and Ed Sheeran collaboration than 'The River' was, 50 Cent not only clearly doesn't care, he drags down the entire song. But on the flip side, Travis Scott actually brought a solid flow to 'Antisocial' and seems to have some chemistry with Sheeran, Meek Mill surprisingly didn't sound out of place on '1000 Nights', Chance The Rapper's verse on 'Cross Me' has only grown on me, and then we have the grime and UK hip-hop acts who are clearly using the platform as much as possible, with J Hus and Dave delivering decent verses and Stormzy really meshing well with Sheeran on 'Take Me Back To London' despite the song's weird Timberlake-esque vibe. Then we have the sung collaborations... and again, if the song feels like a decent idea and the artists have chemistry with Sheeran, they tend to work: 'Beautiful People' with Khalid I've already talked about on Billboard BREAKDOWN but it certainly works better than 'I Don't Care', the love ballad 'Best Part Of Me' with Yebba is saccharine but solid, and I was really impressed how well Ella Mai was able to compliment the late 80s tropical pop vibe of 'Put It All on Me'. Hell, I was expecting H.E.R. to match Sheeran more, but the tone of the song really didn't cultivate any atmosphere especially with that choice of guitar tone and it didn't seem like she had any chemistry with Sheeran whatsoever. On the flip side, for as much Chris Stapleton and Bruno Mars actually tried to give the closing track 'BLOW' some muscle, whoever told them a quasi-funk hard rock jam was a good idea for any of them should be thrown into the Atlantic Ocean, especially as Bruno Mars' own production doesn't give them any convincing grit and it's an utterly jarring closer - they have chemistry, but it's a song that in concept was never going to work.

But that raises an odd question, because for as sanitized and playlist-ready as a significant chunk of this album is, for better or worse, there are some baffling choices and I'd argue it goes back to Sheeran himself, whose weird contradictions as a performer are only coming into sharper focus with time and fame. I've long suspected that Ed Sheeran has gotten way more famous than he ever expected and that he's persisted as long as he has because of smart management and some genuinely odd traits that allow him to fit into the pop monogenre effectively, sometimes even excelling there. And while he's been trying to play all the angles since at least 2014, No. 6 Collaborations Project only exposes the deep fissures between those elements of his art, which leads to an album that's not only badly sequenced, but utterly lacking focus. We get the songs about being antisocial and not being able to fit into the party life, but then you have the moments of total swaggering arrogance that show he's probably just fine - you don't end a project with a rock song called 'BLOW' that sounds like it was done off a bunch of it if you're not trying on some level to be a rock star! And I don't mind Ed Sheeran being a complicated or nuanced guy, but when you have such bone deep contradictions it not only lessens the stakes of individual songs, but it leaves you feeling this is more calculated than genuine - which can be a death blow when you're trying to show real romantic yearning. Honestly, I kind of wish Ed Sheeran has just made the party album, showing both good and bad, but when you get delicate moments of insecurity like 'Best Part Of Me' or 'Beautiful People' or the stab at regret on 'Way To Break My Heart' that sounds like a Jack U reject - which still wind up being better than clunkers like 'Remember My Name' and 'BLOW' - it's a weird picture. And most of this isn't helped by Sheeran's writing still trending towards the broadly sketched and lacking in detail - yeah, some of the details used before are questionable, but I would have preferred they get fixed, not removed entirely!

Granted, if Sheeran was looking for the project to fully shed most of his folk singer-songwriter side and go pure pop, it would be this, and that absolutely comes most in the production, where on a fair few songs the guitar is easily the least important element compares to synths or the omnipresent programmed percussion - and to his credit, I think there are songs where this works. Honestly, I'm shocked that Ed Sheeran doesn't bring more grime acts in because again, while I can see parallels to that last Justin Timberlake album in his flow and timbre, 'Take Me Back To London' rides its icy elegance and spare trap knock effectively - certainly better than the rinky-dink keys of 'I Don't Care' or the curdled faux g-funk of 'Remember The Name' or that rock abortion of 'BLOW'. Hell, when Ed Sheeran actually gets some slightly darker grooves like the muted keys and spare beat of '1000 Nights' with Meek Mill or the curdled scratching knock of 'Antisocial', he at least tries to commit to the vibe and sounds more comfortable than you'd expect - hell, in the latter case I liked how it forced Travis a little out of his comfort zone, and his flow is distinctive here, something I can't say about a lot of Travis collaborations in recent years! I will say some of the minimalist grooves don't always work, especially when they lean into compressed tropical territory like 'Feels' and 'South Of The Border', the latter of which seems oddly less organic than it should be given its squealing acoustics, or that squonking trap burble of 'Nothing On You'. And you know, this goes without saying, but if you're going to get H.E.R. on the song and yet not give her a guitar solo or even let her distinctive tone through - from the credits I saw, she doesn't even play on the song - you're doing it wrong! And while I'm nitpicking, while you could expect it with collaborations with so many people, the fact that more work was not done smoothing out hiccups in vocal fidelity and mixing even for Sheeran himself between songs is inexcusable, as it only makes the jarring shifts thanks to bad sequencing even worse.

But as a whole... look, I don't hate this, and again, it's nowhere near as bad as some people want it to be. Maybe some of that comes with lowered expectations - again, I think it's best to treat this like a summer compilation or even like how you'd treat a good DJ Khaled album, except with a stronger voice at its core. Now there are real duds here and there's certainly not any songs that rise to Ed Sheeran's best - songs like 'Castle On The Hill' and 'Afire Love' and even 'Lego House', 'Don't' and 'Galway Girl' are in a class by themselves - but at the end of the day, this feels like wish fulfillment for the artist and is going to make him bank even if it's not all that impressive or will even last beyond this summer. And for me... more good songs than bad, so I'm giving it a light 6/10, recommended for the diehard fans who will tolerate the pop pivot or just to check out the collaborations that are interesting. Otherwise, if you're not interested, you can skip this and be ready for Sheeran's next album - just expect a lot of this on every summer playlist, you've been warned.

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