Sheeran seems to revel in playing with Migos effects (Skrrt!), rap with Eminem, sing in front of a horn section and be on a track with Cardi B purring "Okurrr." The title of the 15-track project is a nod to his 2011 "No. 5 Collaborations Project," which saw Sheeran team up with U.K. rappers. This time, he welcomes everyone from H.E.R. to Paulo Londra, an artist from Argentina. If listeners go on to explore some of the lesser-known collaborators — like the brilliant rapper Dave — then everyone wins.
Standouts include "Cross Me" with Chance the Rapper and PnB Rock, "Take Me Back to London" with Stormzy and "Beautiful People" with Khalid. Despite all the collaborations, there are little touches that remind you it's a Sheeran album. He's still got that sad-sack, lovable misfit thing going on, despite earning acclaim and millions of bucks. Two songs — "Beautiful People" and "I Don't Care" with Bieber — have Sheeran at a party where he feels he doesn't belong. "I always feel like I'm nobody," he sings.
One thing that has changed is that marriage seems to agree with Sheeran. If in the past, he was creeping a little in an ex's DMs, the newly wed Sheeran has created an album awash with love messages to his wife. "I'm stickin' with my baby, for sure," he sings on "Cross Me." On "Put It All on Me," he admits: "Having my woman there is good for my soul." Missing home is a continual theme.
He does get frisky for someone not Mrs. Ed Sheeran on another fun track "South of the Border," a kind of U.S. cousin to his "Galway Girl." He and Camila Cabello celebrate a lass with "brown eyes, caramel thighs" who makes him cry out (OK, a little cringingly) "te amo, mami." Finally, Cardi B storms in to play up the double entendre of the title and announce: "I think that Ed got a lil' jungle fever."
A few of the guests elevate some songs — Stormzy and YEBBA, among them — but there are a few underwhelming tracks, including the Sheeran-Ella Mai union on "Put It All on Me" and the Bieber song. For the last track, Sheeran, Mars and Chris Stapleton — just take a moment to wrap your head around that stunning trio — get into a Led Zeppelin groove with "BLOW," a head-banger awash in sexual imagery. "Pull my trigger/Let me blow your mind."
Too late. Our mind was blown a few tracks ago.
Mark Kennedy is at http://twitter.com/KennedyTwits