Ed Sheeran’s Collaborations Project Proves He Is the Tofu of Pop Music

On his new album, the malleable megastar fits right in with everyone, relying on rappers and duet partners to provide all the flavor.

Ed Sheeran
A plate of baked tofu. Europa Press News/Europa Press via Getty Images

The best idea in the terrible-idea convention that is the movie Yesterday was to cast Ed Sheeran in the role of benevolent celebrity spirit animal. (Initially, the filmmakers wanted Chris Martin of Coldplay, which would have been a more characteristically terrible idea.) Yesterday is set mostly in an alternate universe in which the Beatles didn’t exist but music and everything else somehow turned out almost exactly the same. And yet, when a solitary bloke of modest talent and reverse charisma starts performing a hodgepodge of random Beatles songs from across their career—irrespective of style and untouched by social context, fashion, the upheaval of the 1960s, or the dominant musical tastes of today—he rapidly becomes one of the world’s biggest stars. With a little help from his friends, mainly Ed Sheeran. Yet among all these implausible, culturally illogical premises, none is so much more implausible than Sheeran actually being one of the world’s biggest stars in real life. So, you know, why not the Beatle thing?

As verified by the awards-night-style variety show that is his new album of duos and trios with stars and up-and-comers from across the musical spectrum—which arrives Friday under the unforgettable title No. 6 Collaborations ProjectSheeran is a walking definition of the word facile, in both its worst and its best senses. His main asset is his ability to access a seemingly bottomless reservoir of contemporary centrist melodicism and lite rhythm that vaguely recalls Elton John at his prodigious 1970s peak, albeit for a less melodically demanding era—and without a Bernie Taupin to provide more substantial words than Sheeran’s usually disposable, sometimes laughably doltish lyrics. That Sheeran looks like an orange tufted vintage teddy bear with stuffing poking out through its incongruous sleeve tattoos may make his pop heartthrob status hard to credit, but it softens the edges of his clearly relentless workaholic ambition. He’s got a grown-up version of the nonthreatening allure of a boy-band member, without the teen-star emotional damage. He has the affable familiarity of your fourth or fifth favorite member of your extended friend group, the guy who’ll make you wince when he does his white-guy-rap-freestyling schtick, but he makes up for it by low-key buying another round of ciders. Though you do keep wondering how well any of you really know him, and whether you actually like cider. Maybe he could ask you for your order next time.

All of which would explain Sheeran being fairly popular, but fairly popular is not what he is. Instead, he’s massive. His last major release, ÷ (aka Divide), was the global bestselling album of 2017. He is rivaled only by Drake as the king of all music streaming services. He’s setting records as one of the most successful touring acts of all time, though Sheeran’s concerts consist of little more than him singing and playing his acoustic guitar through an array of loop pedals, with preset beats, while light shows and video projections strive to make it seem like more is going on. Low overhead is part of why his tours are so profitable, but it’s also that he just plays more dates in sheer numbers than any of his competitors.

The disproportion of Sheeran’s stardom relative to his musical and sartorial scruffiness makes him catnip for mockery, as witness most of this article so far. Many previous music-critic snobberies have eroded through the consumerist pluralism of the internet, a broader politics of cultural representation, and a renewed investment in pleasure as the literal least a listener can ask for. But we can still unite around taking the piss out of a ruddy-cheeked, straight, white British guy who’s drawn upon his sincere love of hip-hop enough to update his category and make acoustic singer-songwriter dudes great again, to the tune of more than $225,000 a day. The line is that he’s almost offensively inoffensive—at least provided you’re not offended by his lyrical propensity for passive-aggressive “nice guy” romantic blackmail, which has never been skewered better than by the dearly departed TV musical comedy Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, with its parody of Sheeran’s “Thinking Out Loud” as the negging pickup ballad “Let’s Have Intercourse.”

The very way that Sheeran’s march to the summit of pop stardom beggars belief and thumbs its nose (amid its straggling facial hair) at skeptics is a lot of what his fans love about him. There’s probably never been a better summary of that ethos than in the video for his opening duet here with Khalid, “Beautiful People”: It finds a flagrantly average white couple dropped into the middle of a living Instagram feed of young and hot conspicuous consumption, which recalls the promo footage for Fyre Festival before that scam’s fraudulent truth was revealed. Through it all, our Mr. and Mrs. Down-to-Earth resist all bottle service–style blandishments and seek only a cup of hot cocoa before bed. “Inside the world of beautiful people/ Champagne and rolled-up notes/ Prenups and broken homes/ Surrounded, but still alone,” Sheeran scolds—“Let’s leave the party.” It’s a well-timed corrective, and with Khalid’s support, the message rings true.

But for an album of crisscrossed celebrity cameos, it’s ironic how prevalent the theme of hating parties is here. It’s the primary motif, of course, in Sheeran’s meetup with Justin Bieber, “I Don’t Care,” which came out in May to top the U.K. charts and was kept from the same spot in the U.S. only by the hegemony of “Old Town Road.” “Don’t think I fit in at this party,” Sheeran grouses. “Who wants to fit in anyway?” The track with Travis Scott, “Antisocial,” is actually a party song, but its main point is that Sheeran doesn’t want anyone at the party to touch or talk to him. I get that he’s a bit of an introvert, but I’m not totally buying it: One of Sheeran’s great strengths as a collaborator is that his nonstyle of a style permits him to melt into almost any wallpaper pattern, fitting in just about as well with the Rolling Stones as he does with Taylor Swift or the Weeknd or the London grime stars he worked with on the independent No. 5 Collaborations Project EP he released just before he got signed, to which this album’s title pays tribute. And surely nobody keeps Sheeran’s kind of concert schedule if they’re truly so averse to crowds.

Divide was Sheeran’s most mature and realized set of songs to date, with a running theme around his family history, and in 2018’s making-of documentary Songwriter, he admitted he thought it might not just be his peak so far, but his peak, period. So this album is not only a victory lap but perhaps a stalling tactic before Sheeran has to face that next big creative blank space. It’s the furthest thing from slapdash, with nearly every track having the ass produced off it by the likes of Max Martin, Shellback, Benny Blanco, Boi-1da, and British studio stars Steve Mac and Fred. But Sheeran really needs all the guest talent here, because the bulk of the time he doesn’t seem to have much on his mind except how much he’s been away from home, “staying up for a thousand nights,” as he puts it on his track here with Meek Mill and A Boogie Wit Da Hoodie, and wanting someone to “Take Me Back to London” (on the track featuring grime star Stormzy). Alternatively, he’s thinking about how successful those tours have been (“Grossed half a billi on the Divide Tour/ Yes, I ain’t kidding, what would I lie for?”) and cursing his doubters: “Bird’s-eye view, pay my dues for a two-mile queue/ Don’t need to read reviews if you can’t do the things I do.”

When he turns his energy to a love ballad, Sheeran’s seldom altogether unconvincing, and that’s particularly true on the most old-school track here, his sumptuous “Best Part of Me” duet with rising Arkansas R&B singer Yebba, but also on “Way to Break My Heart,” with production by Skrillex. But mainly these tracks live on what the guests bring to them, and you’ve just got to hope that Sheeran doesn’t Sheeran too hard over them and mess things up, the way he does on the faux-hair-metal closer with Bruno Mars and Chris Stapleton, “Blow,” where he manages to sing, “You’re doing somethin’ to me, you’re doing somethin’ strange/ Well, jump back, talk to me, woman/ You make me wanna make a baby, baby.” Luckily, the video there, with an all-female rock group lip-syncing over the track, already makes the song seem like a Saturday Night Live sketch, so let’s just pretend that that dumber-than-Whitesnake moment was on purpose, shall we?

Of the guest appearances, the most memorable for me, along with Yebba’s, is Camila Cabello and Cardi B’s on “South of the Border,” which they give enough kick to help one overlook the icky geographical-anatomical metaphor of the title. Likewise, Stormzy’s grime bars on “London” are lip-smacking enough to get you through most, if not all, of what surrounds them, which is Sheeran protesting too much about his rap cred. Chance the Rapper’s appearance on “Cross Me” does much the same for a song that’s otherwise just kind of there. Whereas Young Thug’s feature later on the album is not sufficient to make me forgive a song in 2019 about anybody getting the “Feels,” with a hook that makes 28-year-old Sheeran sound more like a premature granddad than ever. Both H.E.R. on “I Don’t Want Your Money” and Ella Mai on “Put It All On Me” understay their welcomes, filling the tracks with color when they’re singing but making Sheeran’s parts feel all the flatter when they’re not.

Yet all this isn’t as negative as it sounds—I can put No. 6 on the stereo and enjoy it perfectly well, as long as I avoid overthinking it. It’s only that the sum here is less than the parts. (Given that Sheeran’s already had his Plus, Multiply, and Divide albums, it’s hard not to suggest that this one could be called Subtract.) Sheeran does endure a hard time from critics who, it’s perfectly true, can’t do the things he can do. But it’s also that he gives us a hard time, because his music often isn’t very helpful with the things that we can do: There’s not much to theorize or analyze or rhapsodize about here, which doesn’t prevent most of these songs from being eminently listenable. It does make me kind of impatient to find out whether he can expand his vision as he nears his 30s—what an Ed Sheeran who isn’t first and foremost young and charming anymore will have to sing about. Or perhaps he’ll just take his party-hating self and his millions in the bank back to the huge estate—complete with on-site pub—he’s been building back in Suffolk with his new wife, Cherry Seaborn (their marriage is revealed on the otherwise unremarkable Eminem and 50 Cent feature here, “Remember the Name”), and pack it all in. Home sweet home, with a couple of kids running in the yard, ob-la-di, ob-la-da. As twist endings go, it would be just the right blend of somewhat unexpected and utterly uneventful to make it mint Ed Sheeran.

No. 6 Collaborations Project album cover
Asylum Records and Atlantic Records