The strummer’s No. 6 Collaborations Project reveals the blend of sentimentality, humblebragging, and hip-hop swiping that has powered his success.


Maybe it’s time to rethink the idea of Ed Sheeran as filler.Fabrizio Bensch / Reuters
Ed Sheeran has been compared to tofu, to a sponge, to microbes, and to other ubiquitous inoffensive things that take on the qualities of what’s around them. He strums and sings humbly about missing his hometown chip shop, and few observers have an airtight explanation of why that’s resulted in one of the most dominant pop careers ever.

On Spotify, he has more followers than any other artist; his third release, Divide, was 2017’s most popular album; his newest, No. 6 Collaborations Project, will likely debut at No. 1.

Given his success, maybe it’s time to rethink the idea of Sheeran as filler. Or at least it’s time to recognize that if he’s tofu, he’s a specific kind—medium-firm, lightly seasoned, maybe. No. 6 Collaborations Project is, per its title, all collaborations with other musicians, yet Sheeran’s essential Sheeran-ness persists through its Spanglish seduction attempt with Camila Cabello to its closing instance of Jimi Hendrix karaoke, featuring Chris Stapleton and Bruno Mars.

How to describe the patented feeling that only this 28-year-old Suffolk folkie can conjure?

Maybe start with the voice. Sheeran is versatile with his raspy tenor, able to pull off both falsetto weepiness and singing-comedian patter. But across various kinds of songs, there’s one recurring feature: strain. He’ll start from a place of seeming to not try too hard, and then swing into trying very hard—a groan or moan or crack or yell or some other not-singing-ism that still conveys the tune. In the chorus of his hit 2017 anthem “Castle on the Hill,” you can see the spit flying as he vows, “I’m on my way!” For the No. 6 Collaborations Project opener “Beautiful People,” the chorus sees him yelp the title as if it’s a curse to the gods, and then follow it with a mellow, prayerful refrain.

Sheeran’s songs thus tend to give off two opposing feelings. On one hand, there’s control, simplicity, and calm. The arrangements don’t ever get very busy, and Sheeran’s voice is always the LED-lit, easy-to-follow main attraction. He might emphasize a somewhat surprising syllable or tone—part of engineering catchiness is finding ways to smuggle surprise into the familiar—but the melodies always resolve in neat, satisfying patterns. Yet he also wants to create a feeling of veering near wildness, or of losing composure, or of yearning so hard, he might break. More than anything, he gives the impression of trying for something—a note, a memory, a person—that’s out of his reach.

The strain fits his subject matter. Sheeran loves to sing about not fitting in (being in the club, but really craving the pub, as on “Shape of You”), and his public brand makes a spectacle of mismatching (wearing baggy jeans next to Beyoncé’s gown, or bringing his unkempt hair mop to his MBE ceremony at Buckingham Palace). On No. 6 Collaborations Project, he’s especially obsessed with dislocation. “Beautiful People,” the oddly melancholy opener featuring Khalid, triple-underlines his favorite theme. Sheeran paints a stereotypical Hollywood social scene—“Lamborghinis and their rented Hummers … champagne and rolled-up notes / Prenups and broken homes”—so as to contrast himself and his lover with it. “Surrounded, but still alone,” he sings. “Let’s leave the party.”

Leaving the party is the point of many of the songs on No. 6 Collaborations Project. The kickoff single “I Don’t Care,” featuring Justin Bieber, uses a fidgeting beat to describe its narrators squirming at a suit-and-tie function. On “Antisocial,” with the rapper Travis Scott, Sheeran stutters, “Don’t touch me.” His team-up with the U.K. grime star Stormzy airs homesickness from life on the road (all he wants is “a packet of crisps with my pint”). These are complaints about being a celebrity, and it’s odd to hear someone so loudly insist he’s a loner when he’s released an album of collaborations with other famous people. But Sheeran’s influencer angst nevertheless resonates with normal people facing their own pressures to keep up appearances. Wrote one YouTube commenter under “Beautiful People”: “In a time where everybody wants to fit in, we get this masterpiece reminding us what really matters most; being yourself.”

Of course, to sing defiantly about being oneself requires some amount of defining who you’re not. Sheeran’s songs implicitly and explicitly cast criticism at others, and they tend to be people who put effort into their appearance, whether by renting a Hummer or wearing something to a gala other than jeans. It’s a vintage pop move, critiquing materialism in hit songs: Sheeran’s rewriting Lorde’s “Royals,” the O’Jays’ “For the Love of Money,” the Beatles’ “Can’t Buy Me Love,” and so on. Yet few artists have as insistently pursued that lyrical theme while also allying with the music of the materialist mainstream—which, in this moment, is hip-hop and R&B.

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