Every week we guide you through the biggest albums, to help you decide what you should be streaming. This week: two very different approaches to collaboration, and a once promising popstar fails to deliver on generic third…
By their very nature, collaboration albums can feel a little vain. How better to show off your bigness than to build an album around the star-studded contacts that fill your phone?
It’s an accusation not unfairly levelled at Ed Sheeran, who returns with his new album, the say-what-you-see No 6 Collaborations Project. Featuring such luminaries as Stormzy, Camila Cabelo and Eminem, it’s no surprise that a “look at all my famous mates” smugness sets in from time to time. Surprisingly though, for a singer who could release an album of national anthems played on his armpit and still sell a million, there’s very little sense of laurels resting here.
Unlike another “featuring” project we’ll come to shortly, Sheeran very much bends his guests to his will rather than the other way round, but the project carries an energy usually lacking in Sheeran’s work. Yes there are a couple of gloopy ballads (‘Best Part of Me’ is the guiltiest party, despite the unique vocals of YABBA) and the modern pop production feels vacuous and generic, but it’s surprising how catchy and memorable the songcraft can be.
Nothing here is going to shock anyone, but when Sheeran delves into hip hop sounds approaching grime, he’s at his most engaging. So when Stormzy appears on ‘Take Me Back to London’, Sheeran and his army of producers build the song around him to avoid him being simply another “featuring” artist. It prompts Ed to deliver his best rap since ‘You Need Me, I Don’t Need You’ over a menacing string sample. ‘Antisocial’ and ‘Feels’ are equally effective in using this most fashionable of genres.
Generic pop moments (‘I Don’t Want Your Money’, ‘1000 Nights’) threaten to sink the album at times, but this is at least the most exciting and interesting Sheeran has been since he first burst onto the scene with ‘The A Team’ all those years ago.
Another man with experience in collaborating is Damon Albarn, and the Blur/Gorillaz man is back with the latest instalment in his Africa Express series, Egoli (a local name for Johannesburg). However, unlike Sheeran, here Albarn plays low in the mix and instead gives his co-stars the space they need to really shine. A few of his British friends feature—Mr Jukes and Gruff Rhys in particular—but for the most part this is a showcase for some of the extraordinary talent that South Africa has to offer, including Nonku Phiri, Moonchild Sanelly and Mahotella Queens.
Egoli is first and foremost a party album, celebrating the different creeds and cultures the project can bring together in a time of political strife and division. So while the record does at times feel like the best 70s Afrobeat compilation you’ve ever heard, the vibe is far closer to the party vibes of Primal Scream’s Screamadelica, utilising moments of comedown in the same way.
As a result, you get the likes of ‘City In Lights’, ‘Return of Bacardi’ (a song that feels like you’ve downed a bottle of the stuff and are throwing your best/worst shapes as a result) and ‘Mama’ blending 90s house, Afrobeat and blues guitars alongside the soft and widescreen ‘Bittersweet Escape’, bringing the soulful voice of Phiri into the spotlight. Gruff Rhys’ works particularly well on ‘Absolutely Everything is Pointing Towards the Light’, blending beautifully with Zolani Mahola over a lullaby guitar.
At all points on the diverse spectrum, you can feel Albarn’s passion for the project seep through every electronic beat and guitar strum. The man himself pops up on just three tracks, and it’s telling that these are the least interesting songs; when he lets those around him take centre stage though, he has once again produced something special.
Less celebratory is the return of Californian singer-songwriter Banks with her numerically titled third album. When she broke through in 2014, her music positioned her as the dark flip slide to someone like Rihanna, so it’s a shame that her new record is so overwhelmingly dull and unmemorable.
Despite working with the hippest producers on the planet (BJ Burton, Buddy Ross and Hudson Mohawke among many others), the majority of ticks and tricks used on III actively detract from what Banks has to offer. Opener ‘Till Now’ is a perfect example, where Banks is auto-tuned to the point of absurdity, which has the effect of sucking all emotion away, leaving an irritating, deadened whine. ‘Gimme’, ‘Stroke’ and ‘Godless’ explore feminine power and strength (“You tell me you’re a book that I misread/You just wanna tell me what to do,” she kisses off a narcissist at one point), but there’s very little impact.
What’s most frustrating is that when the needless studio nonsense takes a backseat, there are enjoyable moments here. ‘Propaganda’ unshackles that soulful voice of hers towards the end of the album, recalling the sad Scandi world of Lykke Li, while ‘If We Were Made of Water’ and ‘Contaminated’ gives an actual real-life piano the room it needs to breathe. Cinematic strings on ‘Hawaiian Mazes’ and work with Francis and the Lights on ‘Look What You’re Doing to Me’ bring out the drama and soul that’s missing on the rest of the record.
Where Banks’ 4am stylings once felt fresh and exciting, it’s a sound that thanks to the likes of The Weeknd and FKA Twigs now feels generic and ubiquitous across the charts. Banks’ situation is recoverable but for now, her music stands as a missed opportunity.
No 6 Collaborations Project by Ed Sheeran: 3/5
Egoli by Africa Express: 4/5
III by Banks: 2/5