The Game couldn’t believe his eyes last year when Ed Sheeran pulled up to his Compton recording studio from Hollywood—about 20 miles away—pedaling a bicycle. “I'm like, ‘Damn, one of the biggest stars in the world still rides a bike around,’” remembers the 34-year-old rapper of his introduction to Sheeran. They’d initially connected via Twitter in late 2012, after Ed praised Game’s Jesus Piece. Game downloaded + and, impressed, direct messaged his phone number. They linked to complete a skeleton of a song called “Heaven” and ended the session with six recorded tracks. “Everything Ed does—even scraps or demo things—all sounds amazing,” Game says. “Ed’s voice is just soothing.”
Sheeran has been attracted to hip-hop with heart since he was nine, when his uncle compared Eminem to Bob Dylan. Once he brought The Marshall Mathers LP—still his favorite album—Pandora’s rap jukebox opened wide, exposing everyone from Xzibit to LL Cool J to DMX. Ed’s Slim Shady stanning extended through freshman year at Thomas Mills High School in Framlingham, when he dressed up as Em’s semi-autobiographical 8 Mile character Rabbit on non-uniform day, dropping rhymes for anyone who’d would listen. In Game, he sees a similar ability to convey feelings through music. “Give him an emotional song and everything he says will tug at your heart,” he says of Game.
Ed’s two-wheeler is curbed today. He’s trekking Los Angeles in a tinted black SUV, now en route to Carson’s Stubhub Center for a performance at Wango Tango, an annual full-day concert thrown by pop radio station KIIS-FM that features the likes of Shakira, Calvin Harris and Kid Ink rocking the stage this year. Ed plugs a line-in cable to his Macbook Pro and cues up the 15 Game collaborations they’ve cranked out in only three studio sessions.
The first track to play is the midtempo “California Lovin,” which features Sheeran saluting the Left Coast while The Game momentarily imitates Kendrick Lamar over a bluesy beat that’s warm like a freshly ironed T-shirt. There’s an eerie, unfinished DJ Mustard-produced strip club anthem that actually sounds different than everything else he’s produced in the past 365; 2 Chainz and Ty Dolla $ign may guest here. “Roadside” finds Game on the proverbial ledge, contemplating suicide (and name-dropping both late actor Paul Walker and WSHH-viral teen Sharkeisha) over sparse strings while Ed consoles Mom. In all, it’s a unique, excellent bridge between geniuses of very different musical planets.
Sheeran’s Stubhub Center green room is stacked with water bottles, Doritos, mini Twix bars and other junk food. His set time is six hours away, but instead of warming up his falsetto, Ed is curled up on a white leather couch thumbing his iPhone and geeking on rap lyrics. Unprompted, he yawns before reciting a rare, extra-lewd Notorious B.I.G. verse from Uncle Luke’s 1996 song “Bust a Nut.”
Sheeran’s manager, Stuart, enters with a rough cut of the visual for “Sing.” As they deliberate the video’s puppet-to-Pharrell ratio, Sheeran uses his feet to pry off his white Vans. “Would you mind if I take a quick nap?” he asks from the fetal position. His small team obliges, cutting off the lights and clearing out the room, leaving just Ed and his guitar.
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