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Inside Ed Sheeran's ridiculously star-studded new 'Collaborations' album

Inside Ed Sheeran's ridiculously star-studded new 'Collaborations' album
Ed Sheeran performs last month in Madrid. (Luca Piergiovanni / EPA-EFE/REX)

Ed Sheeran’s new album grew out of the fact that he really didn’t need any more alone time.

Arguably the most successful male pop star in the world, Sheeran nonetheless tours like a lonely street busker, with just his guitar and a digital looping pedal to accompany his voice, even when he’s selling out multiple nights at gigantic stadiums like London’s Wembley.

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So when the 28-year-old English singer began work on his follow-up to 2017’s Grammy-winning “÷,” he figured it might be nice to have someone to talk to for a change.

“It was kind of informal,” said Ed Howard, managing director of Sheeran’s U.K. label, Asylum, who oversees the making of his records along with Atlantic U.K. president Ben Cook. “He’s on tour and somebody he loves comes through to see the show — maybe they end up writing a song together.

“Obviously, Ed can write songs on his own. But it’s just more fun to do it with other people.”

If that casual process suggests a collection of larks, think again. On “No. 6 Collaborations Project,” due Friday, Sheeran convenes some of pop’s biggest names — including Cardi B, Justin Bieber, Travis Scott, Eminem and Bruno Mars — for an album as precisely rendered as any Sheeran has made.

The result, in no small part, is a flex: a demonstration of whom Sheeran can get in the studio (and bumps into backstage). But it’s also meant to showcase the widening creative scope of a one-time folkie who’s come a long way since his teenage days worshiping Damien Rice.

There’s Caribbean-accented dance-pop, glowing R&B balladry, even a Sunset Strip hair-metal jam — enough variety to lead Howard to say, “I don’t think there’s anybody else in the world that could make credible music with this range of artists in this many styles.”

As Howard notes, “No. 6 Collaborations Project” started taking shape during Sheeran’s global tour behind “÷,” which Billboard identified as the highest-grossing road show of 2018, with ticket sales of $429 million. (The new album’s title calls back to “No. 5 Collaborations Project,” a 2011 EP on which Sheeran, a lover of hip-hop — and an occasional rapper — long before now, recruited grime MCs such as Wiley and Sway.)

According to Cook, the singer was itching to release new music but wanted to work outside the pattern he’d set with the chart-topping “÷” and his previous two solo albums, 2014’s “x” and his double-platinum 2011 debut, “+.” That he was “bouncing across the world,” as Cook put it, lent itself to the record’s hit-and-run approach.

In South America he got turned on to Paulo Londra, a young Latin trap phenom from Argentina, who guests on the track “Nothing on You.” And in Nashville he and Chris Stapleton, the burly country singer, got the ball rolling on a song that eventually became the hard-rocking “Blow,” which also features Mars. (Sheeran’s original idea for the similarly flexible Mars, Cook said, was “this kind of ‘Lady Marmalade’” that would have teamed the two with Bieber, who instead ended up dueting with Sheeran on the album’s lead single, “I Don’t Care.”)

Skrillex was one artist Sheeran was especially eager to work with, according to Howard, who said, “Ed loves pure old-school dubstep mixed with songwriting and guitars”; the EDM star made “Way to Break My Heart” with Sheeran and also co-produced “Take Me Back to London,” featuring British rapper Stormzy.

Best Part of Me,” a duet with up-and-coming soul singer Yebba, is an outlier on “No. 6” — “more of a traditional Ed Sheeran song,” as Howard said, with plucked acoustic guitar and a lyric about a guy whose "hair is thinning, falling out of all the wrong places." But its inclusion reflects Sheeran’s understanding that what he’s selling isn’t merely the sounds of the moment; he knows how powerfully he combines his awkward relatability with his savant-level skills.

Other featured guests include Ella Mai, Camila Cabello, H.E.R., 50 Cent, Meek Mill, Young Thug and Khalid, the last of whom helps open the album with the pulsating “Beautiful People.” It’s not the only tune here in which Sheeran — who gives a slyly funny performance as a version of himself in Danny Boyle’s new movie, “Yesterday” — describes feeling anxious about the way celebrity can sand down a person’s idiosyncrasies.

Asked about his aspirations for “No. 6,” Howard said he hopes that, with “so much noise around Ed,” the album refocuses attention on the singer’s music. Yet Cook was clear about his desire to reach new audiences — fans of Latin pop, for instance, who might be attracted by Londra’s participation. The label president happily pointed out that “Blow” also was getting played on rock radio stations, a first for Sheeran, who typically dominates Top 40 and Hot AC playlists.

And what about supporting the record on the road? Little about “No. 6,” with its varied textures and many moving parts, would seem to lend itself to the stripped-down style of Sheeran’s concerts. Cook said the singer himself, who has dates scheduled in Europe through the end of August, said the same thing about “Shape of You,” his slinky club track from 2017.

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“Then, lo and behold, he produces this incredible arrangement for the show,” Cook said. “So I don’t know how he’ll do it. But he’ll find a way.”

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