This new Ed Sheeran album sounds like a hostage situation

Ed Sheeran’s new album is as transactional as music gets. (Jeff Spicer/Getty Images for Universal Pictures International)
Pop music critic

Ed Sheeran has to be the only sentient life form in God’s green garden to sit through a Grammy telecast and think, “I’d love to make an entire album that sounds like that.” Voilà! Here’s Sheeran’s “No. 6 Collaborations Project,” an album of mismatched duets designed to feel like prom night at the top of the pops.

Except it feels more like a hostage situation, with a starry gathering of rappers, R&B singers and other Hot 100 detainees pretending that they’re really quite happy to be hanging out with their good and real-life friend Ed Sheeran, a cool guy (from England!) who is definitely very good at rapping. If you can manage to get your ears around Sheeran’s rhymes against humanity (“I was born a misfit/Grew up 10 miles from the town of Ipswich”) you might be able to hear the soft scratch of pens signing checks.

Like so many marquee pop duets of the past decade, each song on this album only ever amounts to a transaction, a brand merger, a convergence of revenue streams. And aside from Sheeran’s flagrantly overconfident rapping, nothing unexpected happens here. There’s no significant musical dialogue between Sheeran’s aspirant soft-pop mewls and Young Thug’s yelps, or Cardi B’s rasps, or Ella Mai’s purrs. No heat, no sparks, no chemical reactions.

There’s another transaction taking place, though, and it has to do with race. By collaborating with Sheeran, artists of color get to work with a global superstar famous enough (and white enough) to play himself in that new Beatles movie. That means more exposure and more cash. Meanwhile, Sheeran is trying to soak up some of his sidekicks’ style and credibility, priceless commodities that white artists have been mopping up off black dance floors since before the dawn of rock-and-roll.

Across this absolutely merciless album, Sheeran’s cred-mopping only becomes intolerable enough to make you wish you were dead during “Remember The Name,” a cursed encounter with Eminem and 50 Cent. Flanked by his childhood heroes, Sheeran finds the courage to rap like a whiny kid at Toys R Us: “You know I want way more than I already got/Gimme a song with Eminem and 50 Cent in the club.”

What else does Ed Sheeran want? Ed Sheeran wants to gaze into the “mmm, brown eyes” of Camila Cabello and sing the words “Te amo, mami” as Britishly as possible.

Ed Sheeran wants to let this unjust world know that white multimillionaire dilettantes should be allowed to rap, too: “I wanna try new things, they just want me to sing/Because nobody thinks I write rhymes.”

Ed Sheeran wants to invite Bruno Mars and Chris Stapleton over to his garage for an afternoon of Lenny Kravitz cosplay, just so he can shout, “You make me wanna make a baby!”

Ed wants, Ed gets. See you at the Grammys, everyone!