The conceit for Ed Sheeran's new album is simple: every song is a posse cut. No.6 Collaborations Project — which arrived on Friday (July 12) and marks the decidedly more star-studded follow-up to 2011's No.5 — features a lot of very famous people and a few up-and-comers, cramming 22 total guests into 15 tracks. It's a total flex: a demonstration of who Sheeran can coax into the studio. But more than that, it's a nifty showcase for the broadening creative reach of a one-time folk singer who's now decided to dabble in R&B, dance-pop, rap, and even hair metal.
Sheeran wrote on Apple Music that he "really stepped out of [his] comfort zone" on No.6, surprising himself and all of us. Below, we recap the eight biggest eye-openers from Ed and his friends.
There are not one, but two bilingual collabs
Given the surging popularity and trendiness of Latin pop in the U.S., maybe this shouldn't be that big of a surprise; after all, it's smart moves like this that have made Sheeran a global superstar. But it's still wild that he was the one to bring Camila Cabello and Cardi B together — they're a natural fit on "South of the Border," a bilingual ode to sweaty summer nights. And later down the tracklist, Sheeran recruits Paulo Londra, a young Latin trap phenom from Argentina, for "Nothing on You."
Leave it to Sheeran — who lent his voice to Em's "River" in 2017 — to get 50 Cent and the Detroit MC to reunite on wax for the first time in seven years. Here, they recount their rags-to-riches stories — or "Taco Bell to TRL," in Eminem's case — against a jaunty, Real Slim Shady-esque musical backing. There's just something jolting about hearing Em rap about sticking nails in his eyelids next to Sheeran shouting out his hometown of Ipswich.
A Boogie Wit Da Hoodie makes a mind-boggling comparison
There's just one traditional romantic ballad
Sheeran has long been the go-to guy for starry-eyed, wedding-friendly songs that lay the love on thick — see: "Thinking Out Loud," "Perfect," and at least a dozen others. On No.6, though, he leaned into genre experimentation and kept the balladry light, offering only the YEBBA-featuring "Best Part of Me."
"Take Me Back to London" is a flex for the ages
Sheeran and Stormzy go back a ways, having previously collaborated on a remix of Ed's behemoth hit "Shape of You." Here, he and the London grime rapper make a shockingly stellar team, with Stormzy arguably outshining every American MC on this project. The most startling moment of this track, though, might be when Sheeran brags about his riches in detail, boasting about "grossing half a billi on the Divide Tour." Go off, Ed!
He and Ella Mai shoulder the weight on "Put It All on Me"
So much of this album is about Sheeran's complicated relationships with fame, with women, and with anxiety. On "Put It All on Me," though, he finally finds comfort while reassuring his partner that "I'm here for whenever you need." Bonus: It sounds brighter and more upbeat than almost everything on Mai's debut album, and it's nice to hear them both take a much-needed exhale.
The Skrillex collab is actually pretty chill
In the final 30 seconds of "Way to Break My Heart" — which marks Sheeran and longtime friend Skrillex's first proper collaboration — the producer pulls out some tricks to warp and distort Ed's vocals. Mostly, though, this is a surprisingly steady and frills-free number about a girl who broke poor Ed's heart.
The entirety of "Blow"
You're lying if you genuinely thought Sheeran, Bruno Mars, and Chris Stapleton would make a rock song together in the year 2019 (or any other year, for that matter). This snarling hard rock cut is an experiment for all three artists involved; it's a style that none of them are familiar with, but that all of them can handle. They completely upend expectations here, right down to that raucous, gender-flipped video. It's a surprising finale to one heck of a musical experiment.