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Ed Sheeran and Friends | The New Yorker

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When Ed Sheeran, the British singer-songwriter, moved to London, at the age of sixteen, he was less of a sensation at open-mike nights than at hip-hop clubs and comedy shows, where his folkie, earnest guitar strumming elicited curiosity. Later, after he moved to Los Angeles, Jamie Foxx invited him to perform at a night he was hosting. “It was like eight hundred black people,” Foxx said, in an interview. “He pops out with his little red hair and a ukulele.” Sheeran, who comes across as a caricature of a cheerful, unassuming Brit, received a standing ovation.

Sheeran, in his unlikely rise to global pop superstardom, has enjoyed success as a fish out of water. A naturally emotional singer and a highly proficient songwriter, he has persisted not only because he is wholesome and conventional but because he seems so comfortable being that way—even as the ground beneath him shifts dramatically. Like Adele, Sheeran represents pop’s terra firma, an antidote to the disorienting blitz of viral hits, social-media stunts, and genre splintering. In his lyrics, he often positions himself as an innocent bystander—someone whose path to success was shaped by happenstance rather than by ambition. As he’s grown more successful—he grossed a reported seven hundred and fifty million dollars in one tour—his songs have conveyed a sense of longing for a bygone simplicity in his life, mostly involving beers at a pub.

Sheeran’s unassailable songwriting and arrangements have always been the bedrock of his career. When Justin Bieber wanted a soft but bracing acoustic song for his most recent album, he turned to Sheeran, and Taylor Swift has long been one of his supporters. But Sheeran also has a roving eye—he enjoys breaking out into raps whenever he needs to express an antagonism that is ill-suited for guitar pop. (This often takes the form of frustration with the music industry.) In 2011, he released an EP called “No. 5 Collaborations,” a collection of collaborations with some of his favorite U.K. rappers. The songs were often awkward but always well intentioned.

The effectiveness of this sincerity has limits. On his previous album, “÷,” he joined a wave of musicians making Caribbean-inflected music, releasing a single called “Shape of You,” which forced his listeners to picture him in an unnatural-sounding game of seduction. It had a strong whiff of pandering. This is the sort of contrivance that defines “No. 6 Collaborations,” Sheeran’s new album. Whereas “No. 5” was a tightly focussed appreciation of the sombre beats of U.K. hip-hop, “No. 6” takes a kitchen-sink approach to collaboration, featuring some of the biggest names of the moment from all genres. The Cuban-American performer Camila Cabello sings in Spanish (as does Sheeran), on a crass and graceless Latin-pop track called “South of the Border”; Eminem appears in all his bellicose glory; the British grime star Stormzy shores up Sheeran’s home-town bona fides; and the Southern-rock giant Chris Stapleton contributes a hair-metal version of his outlaw sound. Sheeran is adrift throughout, and struggles to provide any kind of musical core. The album targets the largest possible demographic, but it’s difficult to tell who will take pleasure in any particular song.

Sheeran made much of the record in Nashville, whose fame as an industry hub is no longer limited to country music. Each time one of his A-list friends passed through, he solicited a recording session. But the resulting songs are so dispassionate that they may as well have been recorded by strangers in different cities. Sheeran assumes the pose of someone at the top, lonely and embittered, a style that is put across much more convincingly by the hip-hop acts on the album. He sings, halfheartedly, of not being given his proper due, as though “No. 6” were anything other than an exercise in social and commercial power.

The act of collaboration was once treated with more caution. Artists carefully selected one or two guests to appear on their records—or none at all. Features could dilute an artist’s vision and cheapen the work. (They were also expensive.) But, in the streaming age, the simplest way to earn a broader fan base is to work with other artists, gaining exposure to their followers. This approach is particularly widespread in genres whose fans are most likely to stream their music, and so Latin, pop, and hip-hop records are now more like playlists.

In 2015, fans of the messianic, solemn rapper J. Cole boasted that, with his first three albums, he had gone “platinum with no features.” But, in January, during a ten-day period, Cole convened more than a hundred artists to work on a compilation record for Dreamville, the niche hip-hop and R. & B. label he runs. The album that these sessions produced, “Revenge of the Dreamers 3,” lists thirty-five artists in the liner notes. And yet, unlike “No. 6,” the record benefits from the camaraderie cultivated in a physical space. Cole’s project elevates emerging talent and finds unexpected joy in unusual pairings. The woozy, lyrically dense songs have the feel of “ciphers”—hip-hop’s tradition in which small groups of rappers improvise and feed off one another in a live setting.

Pop has traditionally been designed to hide the supporting machinery that services the star, but that model is shifting. Producers are becoming pop stars, songwriters thrust into the foreground, bit players transformed into leading men and women. Everyone must try a little of everything. Mark Ronson is the mind behind such indefatigable hits as Bruno Mars’s “Uptown Funk.” Ronson recorded his first solo record in four years, “Late Night Feelings,” in the aftermath of a divorce, but he was savvy enough to sense, perhaps, that there was not much appetite for the existential musings of a handsome, male, blue-chip pop producer. Thus, on the album, he has channelled his longing through a group of female vocalists, many of them understated talents, such as the Swedish indie-pop siren Lykke Li and the veteran R. & B. singer-songwriter Diana Gordon. (Miley Cyrus, Alicia Keys, and Camila Cabello also appear, but they are slight presences.) These are quiet dance-floor songs that harness Ronson’s fondness for funk, disco, and eighties synth pop, but they are stripped of the big-room garishness of his previous work. “Late Night Feelings” is a textured tone poem, emotionally astute and highly enjoyable, an example of a group album that advances an aesthetic agenda and also a commercial one. The album is not so much a risk as it is a product of the freedom granted someone who’s already fulfilled his commercial potential.

The blueprint for the modern collective album was perfected by DJ Khaled, a man so uninterested in the standard model of auteurist musicianship that he does not bother to identify as anything at all. A social-media star with an absurdist sense of humor and an effective A. & R. sensibility, he doesn’t sing, rap, write, or produce, in the traditional sense. For Khaled, releasing an album means soliciting songs from the most famous names in his Rolodex and then shouting his own name over their tracks. There is something refreshing about this willingness to subvert the pretensions of artistry. His enthusiasm tends to inspire lively performances in others, and it has resulted in some of this era’s purest party anthems. (“Wild Thoughts,” a Latin guitar hit that brings Santana and Rihanna together, will be played at weddings in perpetuity.)

At other times, however, Khaled, in his bald attempt to appeal to everyone, satisfies no one. His latest star-studded album, “Father of Asahd,” is bloated and soggy, but undeniably entertaining. When it failed to hit the top of the charts, this spring, there were reports of Khaled’s fury, including a threat to sue Billboard. He’d been bested by “IGOR,” the new album by the cerebral prankster Tyler, the Creator. “IGOR,” a diffuse, impressionistic record, can be seen as a reaction to the audience-baiting and groupthink of more cynical pockets of the music industry. Still, the record has dozens of guest stars, from the comic Jerrod Carmichael to the electro-pop veteran La Roux, scattered across lo-fi interludes and hushed refrains. Yet, when you search for the album online, none of their names appear in the song titles. ♦



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