The first time I heard a song off of Ed Sheeran’s No. 6 Collaborations Project album, I was crammed in the backseat of a rental car with a dead phone and no aux cord, inching through D.C. traffic on my way to the airport. I had just left from my cousin’s high school graduation, and the sweat from a suffocating Virginia summer plastered my clothes and hair to my skin, cooling in the whir of weak air conditioning. The radio played just loud enough to be background noise, but all there was to listen to was advertisers’ endless attempts to convince me that I should give them my money, so I eventually tuned out. With a solid two hours left to travel, however, and too hot to nap, the only thing left to do was to listen to the radio. Soon enough, the music returned, and a deep bass filled the speakers, accompanied by Chance the Rapper’s recognizable voice. The sound was one that immediately grabs attention, the lyrics making the listener nod along to the beat—but what caught my attention was the voice that came through at the chorus. Ed Sheeran. My eyes instantly snapped open. Ed Sheeran collaborated with Chance the Rapper?!
Ed Sheeran started his music career with independent releases as early as 2004, eventually moving on to sign with Asylum Records in 2011. After signing with the record company, Sheeran went on to release his Plus album later that year, followed by Multiply in 2014 and Divide in 2017. Throughout these albums, Sheeran’s audience can describe his music as a unique mix of acoustic guitar, Irish folk elements, rhythmic beats, and memorable lyrics to make a style that reflects both his life and his reputation for creating music different from other artists in the pop music genre. Thus, when I first heard the first singles released from No. 6 Collaborations Project, and looked further into the album, the wide range of genres from which Sheeran pulls for these collaborations was surprising, moving from electronic with Skrillex in “Way To Break My Heart,” to hip hop with Chance the Rapper and PnB Rock in “Cross Me,” to rhythm and blues with Ella Mai in “Put It All On Me,” among others. Through these different songs, the audience gets to experience a spectrum of sound that they may not be able to on another work. With this variety, this opens up the opportunity for the audience to come together with different backgrounds and experiences, and there is a connection between different people through this experience.
What is interesting about this album in particular is that the songs do not necessarily completely subvert the genres or the styles we would expect from the collaborating artists, yet the way in which they come together creates something entirely new and unexpected. Take, for instance, “Antisocial,” which Sheeran performs with Travis Scott. The song opens with a beat that any audience remotely familiar with Travis Scott can immediately recognize, yet Ed Sheeran’s voice comes through with his own sound; this is unexpected, but it draws the listener in—they want to know what will happen next. The unexpected range of collaborations on this album include not only well-established artists such as Bruno Mars, Camilla Cabello, Eminem, and 50 Cent, but also more up-and-coming artists, such as YEBBA, with her debut single released in 2017; H.E.R. with her debut release under this name in 2016; Ella Mai, who released EP’s starting in 2016; and Boogie wit da Hoodie, who released his debut album in 2017. New voices join in on a collaborative work that will reach a wide range of people, and so these artists will gain recognition for their work where they might not have otherwise, adding a new spin to the current trends within the pop culture scene. There are so many voices out there just waiting for the opportunity to share their story with the world, and the album does well to taking a step in that direction.
With the variety in sound on this album, one major way in which No. 6 Collaborations Project strays from Ed Sheeran’s previous work is the fact that there is very little presence of the stylistic elements we typically see within his music. There is an embrace of the collaborator’s styles over anything acoustic, which makes each song much more intense. While this intensity bodes well towards the idea of a collaborative effort, it does change the way in which an audience might receive the song “Best Part of Me,” featuring YEBBA. As YEBBA is still fairly new in terms of the mainstream music scene, her voice in combination with Ed Sheeran is a refreshing experience. The song itself reflects more of the soft, acoustic ballads appearing on Sheeran’s previous albums, and, while a poignant piece, one could argue that there is a rather abrupt transition between the energetic vibe of the other collaborations and the subtler experience of this track in particular. Though the songs currently on the album work well together, the abrupt shift in tone leaves the album open to the idea that there might be room to include another track or so that echoes the softer tones of song “Best Part of Me,” as this balances out the jarring effect of a sudden shift in the album’s tone.
Sheeran communicates a sense of authenticity to his music, especially in commenting on the music industry and the concept of fame. From his 2011 song “You Need Me, I Don’t Need You,” for example, there are lyrics such as “Let me sing and do my thing and move to greener pastures / See, I’m real, I do it all, it’s all me / I’m not fake” and “I won’t be a product of my genre / My mind will always be stronger than my songs are” to his 2017 song “Eraser,” “I look in the mirror, questioning what I’ve become / Guess it’s a stereotypical day, for someone like me / Without a nine to five job or a uni degree / To be caught up in the trappings of the industry,” there is a sense that Sheeran strives to maintain a sense of normalcy despite his success. This theme is present throughout the songs on the current album as well. In “Beautiful People,” Sheeran writes about the “Drop top, designer clothes / Front row at fashion shows / ‘What d’you do?’ And, ‘Who d’you know?’ / Inside the world of beautiful people / Champagne and rolled-up notes / Prenups and broken homes / Surrounded, but still alone […] That’s not who we are […] We are not beautiful;” here, there is once again this sense of an ease in losing a person’s sense of self when it comes to a life of fame. Once a person reaches what we all think we should reach for, is “beautiful” all we become? Do we lose ourselves in the name of “making it”? Yet, Sheeran stresses the fact that “there’s no need to care” about the fear of losing oneself if that person focuses on remaining true to who he or she is. Creating art that people can appreciate does not mean that a person has to sacrifice who he or she is as a result. Art does not have to be “beautiful;” it just has to be real.
As he claims in the song “1000 Nights,” Ed Sheeran is an artist who will not “be stoppin’ anytime soon” and who does not “need to read reviews if [people] can’t do the things [he] do[es]”—he aims to live his truth, and this is why this album is so successful in its entirety. With the collaborative nature of the album, and his lyrics, Sheeran is an artist that speaks to people like me through his music. His audience is a group of people who can listen to his work and face the important reminder that it is okay to be true to oneself despite what others may think. This message speaks to the importance of art as a concept: there is variety, yet the voices come together to speak as a whole, making No. 6 Collaborations Project a tribute to both authenticity and impact in the industry today.