In 2012, I interviewed Ed Sheeran backstage at Brixton Academy. There was plenty of evidence that his career was in the process of taking off – his album + had just spent its fifth week at No 1, he had sold out two nights at the 5,000-capacity venue and was already famous enough that he couldn't smoke a cigarette out of the dressing room window without bringing the street below to a standstill. But there was nothing to suggest the level of success he was about to encounter.
That is, unless you were Sheeran, who already exuded an intriguing mixture of sweet-natured, self-deprecating charm and steely, vaulting ambition. No, he wasn’t surprised + had been so successful, even if everyone else seemed to be: “Because the music I write is like love songs with big hooks, I kind of knew it would end up where it’s ended up if it got the right radio play.” During the photoshoot, he claimed that he already had a career plan in place: two more albums, each named after a mathematical symbol, then an album of duets with huge names. “Then I’ll calm it down a bit.”
This writer – who had pegged Sheeran as the new Newton Faulkner, rather than the next Epoch-Defining Ruler of Pop – listened to said career plan in a spirit of nonplussed indulgence: nothing wrong with dreaming big, mate. But here we are, seven years, two more albums named after mathematical symbols and 162 million sales later, staring down the barrel of Ed Sheeran’s promised album of duets.
The supporting cast has changed considerably from the names he suggested back in 2012: the selection of classic rockers beloved of his dad appears to have been jettisoned – although in fairness, Sheeran has already collaborated with Elton John, Eric Clapton and the Rolling Stones – leaving Eminem and 50 Cent, of all people, in the grizzled old Methuselah roles.
Everything else, however, appears to have turned out pretty much as he said it would. It's a tribute to his ongoing dominion over the charts – not just as an artist but as a songwriter, whose donated cast-offs have shown a marked tendency to reach No 1 in 18 countries – that the credits look like a who's who of the current pop landscape: Cardi B, Camila Cabello, Khalid, Justin Bieber, Bruno Mars, Travis Scott, Skrillex, Meek Mill and A Boogie Wit Da Hoodie. Sheeran's adoption by the UK hip-hop scene – just as the UK hip-hop scene exploded into the mainstream – isn't the reason for his success, but it didn't exactly hinder it either: here, Stormzy, Dave and J Hus line up to take part.
Unsurprisingly, the end result sounds not unlike a Top 20 rundown or Spotify’s Hot Hits UK playlist. That should give you an idea of whether you’ll like it – in the unlikely event that there’s anyone out there who hasn’t already made their mind up about Ed Sheeran – but it also tells you how commercial it all is.
It skips from acoustic balladry (Best Part of Me, the latest Sheeran song precision-tooled to be the first-dance music at weddings for all eternity) to the straightforward hip-hop of Travis Scott vehicle Antisocial, to an unexpected burst of Led Zep-by-way-of-Queens-of-the-Stone-Age riffage on Blow, to Take Me Back to London, a pop-grime track with lyrics that detail the friendship between Sheeran and Stormzy while offering listeners a study in contrasts between their personas. “Chat shit, get banged … all those stupid pricks on the ‘gram,” snaps Stormzy; “I’m back in the biz with my guys, give me a packet of crisps and a pint,” offers Sheeran.
The sound skews noticeably towards the R&B-influenced end of his oeuvre represented by Sing and Shape of You: if there isn't a song here quite as undeniable as either of those, then both the Khalid-featuring Beautiful People, which sets an indelible melody line and chorus amid soft-focus synths, and Put It All on Me, which features Ella Mai and an insistent guitar hook draped languidly over a breakbeat, runs them close.
Indeed, it occasionally cleaves a little too closely for its own good: South of the Border sounds perilously similar to Shape of You. The latter also sees the appearance of what you might call the shameless Sheeran of Galway Girl, a man abundantly aware that the general public’s notion of cool seldom chimes with that of record labels or indeed rock critics. Charged with writing a song for the Cuban-American Camila Cabello, he manages to last barely a minute before breaking out the Latin language of love: “Te amo, mamá.”
It’s not the only moment that doesn’t work. You can see the logic behind the Eminem and 50 Cent collaboration Remember the Name – the jaunty musical backing is clearly designed in the image of The Real Slim Shady – but there’s something jarring about Eminem rapping about sticking nails in his eyeballs next to Sheeran repping Ipswich.
But elsewhere, Sheeran succeeds in pulling off his patent trick of simultaneously stunning you with the pitiless commercial efficiency of his writing while retaining a certain ordinary-bloke humanity.
For all the bragging about his achievements when the genre he’s dabbling in warrants it – put him in the studio with a rapper and it won’t be too long before he starts filling you in on the eye-popping financial take-home of his last world tour (€301 million, in case you’re wondering) – there’s a tang of affecting authenticity about the parade of neuroses on display elsewhere in the lyrics. This ranges from social anxiety to fretting about the onset of male-pattern baldness: a reminder that, while Sheeran undoubtedly pioneered the valuable pop commodity of #relatability, he did it by default rather than design.
Yet a certain confidence oozes from No 6 Collaborations. And why wouldn’t it? It doesn’t suggest any slackening of his grasp on what people want to hear: the only thing likely to prevent it becoming a vast success is some kind of mass-extinction event. And the only question it raises is whether he’s now ready to put the next stage of his strategy into action and calm it down a bit. Maybe: there’s a distinct sense of the victory lap about the album. Or maybe not. “It ain’t my time to call it a day,” he sings at one juncture. If he doesn’t, it’ll count as the one time things haven’t gone exactly to plan. – Giuardian