Ed Sheeran’s new album, No.6 Collaborations Project, feels like a game of musical Mad Libs. 22 guest vocalists are spread, seemingly at random, across 15 tracks that riff through styles — lead-footed southern rock and featherweight acoustic balladry, lithe R&B and a clumsy homage to Aftermath Entertainment, Latin pop and willowy dancehall — like socialites on a shopping spree.
Sheeran has presented the new album as a return to the freedom of his pre-major-label days, before legal red-tape and commercial pressure made collaborations more complicated. Back then, “I made an eight-track EP called No. 5 Collaborations Project with a load of U.K. rappers that I was a big fan of at the time,” Sheeran said earlier this year during a conversation with the famous radio host Charlamagne tha God. No.6 Collaborations Project also represents a chance for Sheeran to pay homage to the artists he admires at the moment: “For me, this is a compilation album of artists that I am a fan of,” he said.
It turns out that Sheeran shares a label with many of the artists he’s a fan of; No. 6 Collaborations may be an accurate reflection of Sheeran’s streaming habits, but it’s also a deft piece of brand synergy, showcasing a wide range of names on Atlantic Records. The guest list is culled so that nine of the singers or rappers here are in some way connected either to Atlantic, the industry-leading label according to one recent market-share estimate, or its parent company, the recently renamed Warner Records. Sheeran is throwing a party, and the bar is generously stocked, but most of the booze is staying in the family.
The Atlantic clan includes Bruno Mars, Meek Mill, PnB Rock, Cardi B and A Boogie wit da Hoodie, currently the label’s breakout star and the third most-streamed artist of 2019. The electronic producer Skrillex, who also appears on No.6 Collaborations, releases music through the label Big Beat, which is also under the Atlantic umbrella. The unpredictable rapper Young Thug puts out his music jointly through 300 Records and Atlantic. The grime star Stormzy — who scored his first Number One in England earlier this year and then headlined the country’s flagship music festival, Glastonbury — is signed to Atlantic UK. And the rising Argentinian trap artist Paulo Londra, who has amassed over a billion streams worldwide, is signed to another part of Warner Records, Warner Music Latin.
The rest of Sheeran’s duet partners appear to be roughly split evenly between Warner’s two primary competitors. Sony Music Entertainment shows up on No.6 Collaborations in the form of Travis Scott, Khalid, Camila Cabello, and H.E.R., while Universal Music Group lends Sheeran the services of Eminem, Ella Mai, Chris Stapleton, and Justin Beiber.
For Sheeran’s label-mates, especially the rappers and Londra, the inclusion on No.6 Collaborations is a chance to reach Sheeran’s more adult-contemporary-leaning fanbase, who would probably not seek out hip-hop or music in Spanish otherwise. And it’s also a nice jolt for their global profiles — Ed Sheeran is the most popular artist on the planet on Spotify, with over 65 million monthly listeners around the world.
Though No.6 Collaborations Project is a pop blockbuster, it actually shares some similarities with another recent release, Revenge of the Dreamers III, by the rappers (and R&B singer) on Dreamville Records. That label relied on the star power of J. Cole and guests like T.I. and Ty Dolla $ign to elevate some of their younger, lesser-known acts (Bas, JID). And the strategy appears to have paid off, since the album’s set to debut at Number One by a healthy margin.
Whether it’s his intention or not, Sheeran is executing a similar move on a larger scale: Putting his label on his back and seeing how far he can carry it.