Billboard is celebrating the 2010s with essays on the 100 songs that we feel most define the decade that was — the songs that both shaped and reflected the music and culture of the period — with help telling their stories from some of the artists, behind-the-scenes collaborators and industry insiders involved.
In the early 2010s, British soul-pop wasn’t exactly proven catnip for the charts. But much like an unexpected smash sophomore album from another U.K. soul singer just four years earlier, Adele’s 21 became the game-changing, trend-defying smash hit LP no one saw coming.
That storm was preceded by a lightning bolt of a lead single called “Rolling In the Deep.” Composed by Adele with Paul Epworth (not long after his work on Florence + the Machine’s debut) in a single afternoon, the strummy soul stomper is a tell-off anthem to a former lover that’s empowering while fragile at the same time. A line like “we could have had it all” reads confident on paper, but on wax, there’s no sneer; if anything, her voice is drenched in pain and regret.
“It was one of those moments where she literally finished writing and sang it twice and was like, ‘Should I do another one?’” recalls engineer Mark Rankin of the recording. “And I remember saying, ‘No, I think we’re good.’ I maybe took one word from one take and put it to another take, and that’s what’s on the record. It’s so real, and it’s magic.”
Like the ’60s soul classics it’s styled after, “Rolling In the Deep” is a musical master course in relentlessly building to a thunderous catharsis. Percussionist Leo Taylor slowly but methodically taps the cymbals before a crackling drum roll comes in around the one-minute mark, followed by a bevy of backup vocal sirens chanting about her loss, Greek chorus-style. Loud as they may wail, though, their voices never overpower Adele – then again, how could they when she’s pulling on that deeply wounded note of regret in the chorus like it’s taffy?
And when it arrived, it hit audiences like a cannonball.
“We launched 21, with ‘Rolling In The Deep’ and ‘Someone Like You’ in quick succession,” remembers Ben Beardsworth, managing director of XL Recordings. “In the space of 48 hours Adele’s career trajectory skyrocketed, and she became an unstoppable force.”
Debuting at No. 68 on the Hot 100 when it was released in December 2010, “Rolling in the Deep” was a stark contrast to what the day’s top pop hitmakers were churning out (this was Lady Gaga circa “Born This Way” and Rihanna around the time of “We Found Love,” for comparison). But with young listeners latching on to it as a breakup anthem, and older audiences who weren’t necessarily regular music buyers going out of their way to snap up copies of the retro-vibe-drenched 21 after it dropped in January of 2011, “Deep” soared into the No. 1 spot in May 2011, where it stayed for seven consecutive weeks.
“Neither [“Rolling in the Deep” nor “Someone Like You”] was anywhere near what pop music was at that moment, and it was an absolute joy to watch them connect in such a big way,” says Beardsworth.
The song quickly became a modern-day pop standard — “When Aretha Franklin covers your song, that’s when you know it’s special,” comments mix engineer Tom Elmhirst — and set up Adele for a career of record-shattering sales, with 21 spending 24 non-consecutive weeks at No. 1 and breaking the record for longest-charting album by a woman on the Billboard 200. Plus, it handily teed her up for the success of 2015 follow-up 25, which beat *NSYNC’s long-held record for most albums sold in a single week… and bested them in just over three days. In an era where the music industry was reeling from plummeting album sales and hadn’t quite figured out the streaming business model, those successes provided sorely needed profit — and hope — for the biz and its future.
It didn’t exactly kick off a trend of blue-eyed soul on the American charts, though; while Sam Smith managed to follow in her footsteps with major U.S. success, for the most part, bombastic soul-pop would remain a traffic-free lane dominated by Adele for the 2010s, demonstrating that sometimes, the sounds that aren’t supposed to work are the ones that pay off the most.
“It’s one of those songs that people think maybe there was a lot of trickery involved,” Rankin says. “You hear something and it’s a bit of a mystery and people try to emulate it. But really, it was just that everything was in the right place on it. It was pretty straightforward, and it was honest and real. That’s timeless.”