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.

Sheeran’s affection for rap is well documented, and No. 6 Collaborations Project is his most forthright expression of that affection. He not only calls on emcees young (Argentina’s Paulo Londra) and old (Eminem and 50 Cent), but also spends a lot of time rapping himself. He devotes some lines to the fact that few people think of him as a hip-hop artist—“I wanna try new things, they just want me to sing / Because nobody thinks I write rhymes”—but the truth is that the public is fairly well acquainted with Sheeran’s knack for warbly, hambone bars. He essentially rapped on two of his biggest hits, “Shape of You” and “Sing.” He also did so on Taylor Swift’s “End Game.”

But Sheeran is not seeking acceptance as a rapper, really. Rather, he’s a pop star for a moment when the definition of pop is contested and gatekeepers are fretting about their older, whiter, more closed-minded audiences. Top 40 radio stations remain slow to promote some of the most massive songs in the country when they’re by hip-hop artists. Adult contemporary radio, an important and widespread format, has a habit of playing edited versions of popular songs scrubbed of rap. The No. 1 adult-contemporary track right now, “Girls Like You” by Maroon 5, featuring Cardi B, often is broadcast in a form without Cardi B. It’s natural to suspect a racist logic to such programming decisions, especially when Sheeran’s “Shape of You” and “Sing” had no problem gaining traction in Top 40 and adult-contemporary formats.

Sheeran thus can smuggle rap and rap-like elements—pop music’s primary sources of novelty and vitality right now—to listeners who think themselves skeptical of these styles. No. 6 Collaborations Project might even serve as a gateway to a new genre for some of those listeners, though most of the heavily hip-hop-influenced songs rate as mere curiosity. “Antisocial” plays as an airbrushed, PG version of the moody odysseys that Travis Scott is known for; “Remember the Name” has an all-too-sunny guitar bolstering Sheeran’s singsong bars, and guest stars Eminem and 50 Cent aren’t exactly current hitmakers. The tune with the most life is “Cross Me,” which boasts an itchy, irrepressible beat fortified by PnB Rock’s chanting. In one verse, Chance the Rapper yowls about his girlfriend doing CrossFit, and it’s a charming, if dorky, companion piece to Sheeran’s boasts about his woman.

That song spotlights another key side of Sheeran: the romantic. Again and again, he sings of the power of honest connection—often by contrasting his beloved against the big, bad superficial world he’s always dissing. His love songs can verge on condescending or gross, though, and that’s especially the case on No. 6 Collaborations Project, where his more worldly collaborators seem to push him into making sex talk that he’s ill-equipped to pull off. His Camila Cabello and Cardi B team-up, “South of the Border,” is panting soft-core: “She got the mmm, white dress, but when she’s wearin’ less / Man, you know that she drives me crazy.” Then there’s the purest ballad of the album, and the most unlistenable thing here, “Best Part of Me.” As he compares his physical “flaws” with his deeper virtues—“My lungs are black” (he’s a smoker), but “my heart is pure”—classic songwriter treacle meets the modern humblebragging selfie: a blend of ingredients that, while too pungent on this song, is the essence of Sheeran.

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