Before the hit records that made him a worldwide sensation, Ed Sheeran—a folk-pop artist from Suffolk, England—began with a greater breadth of musical output. Arguably the greatest creative achievement of his career to date is the No.5 Collaborations Project, his last independent release in January 2011. In the months that followed, Sheeran was signed to Atlantic Records and found mainstream success with his debut LP, +, and although No.5 had very little promotion, it went on to peak at No. 2 in the iTunes Chart.
Ed was one of the first viral UK music success stories, growing and gaining an audience online years before it was a well-trodden path. Having formed a close working relationship with Jamal Edwards of SB.TV, his name was known in and amongst the UK’s black music scene, especially grime—a sound that would go on to form the backbone of No.5. The project’s highlight, “Family”, saw grime emcee P Money recount the trauma of his near-fatal car crash atop a pulsing, dubstep-tinged production; on “Lately”, Devlin and Ed trade rhymes about the grind, sleepless nights and the strains of writer’s block; and Ghetts’ feature on the soaring “Drown Me Out” embraces his double-time flow to create a feeling of defiance in an anthemic setting. Topically, we hear about the lives of the artists involved like we’d never done before, especially in the case of Wiley. To lock Wiley down for a feature is hard to come by for anyone, but he delivered on “You”. The reflective song traces his past, touching on his troubled relationship with his mum and the positive impact his grandmother had on his upbringing. The godfather of grime also opens up about the driving force behind his struggle for success, over a hazy beat accompanied by Ed’s delicate and solemn chorus.
It has to be noted that only two months prior, Wiley’s Roll Deep released Winner Stays On—one example of the drift away from the roots of grime and towards crowd-pleasing dance anthems. It was a confusing time for fans of the genre but, thankfully, No.5 kept its essence intact.
That existential crisis is spelled out explicitly by Jme on “Radio”. Over a light beat, with marching snares and smooth acoustic melodies, the BBK star delivers a sobering look at his choice: selling out and making music that wasn’t true to character, or continuing to chip away at an industry that simply wasn’t interested in supporting grime (“I’m here struggling, keeping it real, while the rest of them are hustling, seeking a deal”). Four years before the drop of Integrity> in 2015, Jme was already stating his pledge to stay independent and unwaveringly true to himself—and he’s stuck to his word, remaining in complete control of all his output.
Still, it’s clear how strong the temptation was for MCs to jump on the bandwagon and pursue commercial success above artistic authenticity. Nothing on No.5 is chasing a chart hit, or looking to exploit a trend—this independent and experimental project enabled the MCs involved to push the boundaries of grime. The sense of unrestricted artistry in No.5 mirrors many of the changes seen in UK music almost a decade later.
Grime has experienced a resurgence that few people could have predicted and influences from other styles are readily embraced, but the popularity of the genre means that it’s not necessary to look elsewhere to find wider appeal. Now, MCs and producers can challenge the norms without needing to sacrifice their identity. An obvious case is the phenomenon that is Stormzy. He rose to the top of the charts via a freestyle that was recorded in a park, to then performing numbers like “Blinded By Your Grace” and “Crown” at Glasto, both of which feature choirs and signing from Big Mikey himself. No longer viewed as one dimensional, grime MCs’ ability to cross over into contrasting genres of music and art is now well established. Skepta—one of the most recognisable and successful musicians the UK’s ever produced—can create Ignorance Is Bliss, which is sonically a natural evolution rather than a conscious decision to sacrifice authenticity for mass appeal.
No.5 Collaborations Project showed that it was possible to retain a vital focus on the emcee and still appeal to larger audiences. If nothing else, this project’s a reminder of how far homegrown UK music has come.
Ed Sheeran's 'No.6 Collaborations Project', featuring Cardi B, Meek Mill, Bruno Mars and more, drops on July 12.