In The Number Ones, I’m reviewing every single #1 single in the history of the Billboard Hot 100, starting with the chart’s beginning, in 1958, and working my way up into the present. Book Bonus Beat: The Number Ones: Twenty Chart-Topping Hits That Reveal the History of Pop Music.
Logically, a hit as gargantuan as “Rolling In The Deep” should’ve changed the entire music business. Here, we had a song that went against every prevailing pop trend and still became the biggest single of 2011. Deep in the dayglo EDM era of the early ’00s, a raw and stripped-bare breakup song crashed through every barrier, appealing to virtually every audience that a pop song even theoretically could reach. “Rolling In The Deep” should’ve been “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” It should’ve been “Nuthin’ But A ‘G’ Thang.” It should’ve been “I Want To Hold Your Hand.” It was none of those things.
“Rolling In The Deep” did change everything, but only for Adele. Adele was already pretty famous and esteemed before the first single from her sophomore album elevated her to megastar status. After that, though. Adele became arguably the biggest pop star of the 21st century. She sold records in numbers that would’ve previously been considered inconceivable in the download era. She sold records like she was Garth Brooks and it was still 1996. Adele didn’t do any of the regular things that pop superstars are supposed to do. She didn’t record collaborations or release flashily choreographed music videos. She barely even toured. She was still huge.
If you look at the list of #1 hits that arrived in the immediate wake of “Rolling In The Deep,” though, the only ones that sound anything like Adele are the other Adele songs. Rather than ushering in a renaissance of old-fashioned grand-dame vocals and soul-shattering breakup anthems, Adele simply became a massive exception to every rule. The other gigantic pop stars of the 21st century, the Taylor Swifts and Drakes of the world, have made music that works in conversation with everything else that’s happening in pop. Adele doesn’t do that. She disappears for years at a time, and then she comes back with another collection of old-fashioned ballads that sells in mind-boggling numbers. It’s a career without precedent. That career didn’t start with “Rolling In The Deep,” but it does hinge on the song.
Adele didn’t arrive on the American pop charts entirely free of context. At various points, Adele has said that she owes almost all of her career to Amy Winehouse, the singer who came out of London a few years before her and proved that there was a real public appetite for emotionally raw old-school pop-soul anthems. Winehouse’s 2006 breakout album Back To Black was an absolute sensation in the UK. In the US, Winehouse did decent numbers, and “Rehab,” her biggest hit, made it to #9. (It’s a 9.) Winehouse’s messiness was central to her art, and it’s the subject of most of her best songs. But that messiness caught up to her, and she never followed up Back To Black before addiction claimed her life. She died at 27, a couple of months after Adele reached the top of the Hot 100 for the first time.
In the wake of Amy Winehouse, a wave of British artists popped up: white female soul singers with retro affectations and no particular desire to meet the dance-pop zeitgeist where it sat. In the late ’00s, those post-Winehouse retro-soul singers arrived with a whole lot of hype, and a few of them made some impact. There was Duffy, whose single “Mercy” reached #27 on the US charts. There was Joss Stone, who landed a couple of minor Hot 100 hits. And then there was Adele, whose career might’ve gone in a similar direction if she didn’t catch a couple of lucky breaks.
Adele Laurie Blue Adkins grew up as the daughter of a teenage single mother in London. (When Adele was born, Whitney Houston’s “Where Do Broken Hearts Go” was the #1 song in America. In the UK, it was S’Express’ “Theme From S’Express,” an absolute banger.) Adele’s father wasn’t in the picture, and her mother worked odd jobs: masseuse, furniture manufacturer, office administrator. Adele fell in love with her mother’s R&B records and eventually found a spot at the Brit School, the same performing arts institution where Amy Winehouse studied. When she was about to graduate, Adele recorded a three-song demo, and a friend posted it on MySpace. XL Recordings, the London label known for clubby, hipster-friendly names like MIA and Basement Jaxx, reached out to Adele and signed her as quickly as it could. In retrospect, it’s wild that Adele ended up on XL — a bit like if Céline Dion spent her entire career as an Astralwerks recording artist.
Adele was 19 years old when she released her 2007 debut single “Hometown Glory,” and it was a pretty big UK hit, reaching #19. Her follow-up, the grand ballad “Chasing Pavements,” was much bigger, going all the way to #2 over there. Adele’s debut album 19 made an immediate UK impact, and her management worked out a deal for the record to come out in the US through XL and Columbia. For a long time, 19 languished in America. Adele toured the US, but she cancelled a bunch of her dates to stay home with her boyfriend, and the record lost a lot of momentum. Late in the year, though, Adele was booked on Saturday Night Live as a musical guest. That episode happened to be the one where Sarah Palin, running for Vice President and desperate to counteract Tina Fey’s devastating impression, made a guest appearance. The show did huge ratings, and “Chasing Pavements” took off, eventually reaching #21 over here.
In the wake of that SNL performance, Adele’s 19 album went gold. (It’s now triple platinum.) At the 2009 Grammys, Adele won Best New Artist, the same award that Amy Winehouse had won a year earlier. In that category, Adele defeated the Jonas Brothers, Jazmine Sullivan, fellow retro-soul singer Duffy, and the country trio then known as Lady Antebellum. (The Jonas Brothers will eventually appear in this column.) Adele soon got to work on her sophomore album. At first, she wanted to make something more upbeat and contemporary than what she’d done on 19, but early recording sessions didn’t go well. Adele’s manager paired her up with Paul Epworth, a British producer known for his work with indie acts like Bloc Party, the Futureheads, and Florence & The Machine. Adele wasn’t sure about working with someone who had that resume, so she just got drunk with him instead, and they hit it off. Then Adele’s boyfriend broke up with her, and everything changed.
Adele has never identified the ex who catalyzed pretty much all of her album 21. She’s merely said that he was her first real relationship and that he was 10 years older than her. He introduced her to a lot of stuff, but her friends couldn’t stand him. The day after they broke up, Adele went to the studio with Paul Epworth. She was heartbroken. Later, Adele told The Independent, “I never get angry, but I was ready to murder. I went in crying and stuff, and said, ‘Let’s write a ballad.’ And [Epworth] was like: ‘Absolutely not! I want to write a fierce tune.'” That fierce tune turned out to be “Rolling In The Deep.”
The title “Rolling In The Deep” is funny. It conjures images of ships being tossed around on the ocean, but Adele says that it was supposed to be her flipping the idea of the slang term roll deep — as in, to show up with a bunch of people backing you up. Adele thought she’d have this person forever, and now her backup is gone. There’s heartbreak in “Rolling In The Deep,” but the song is more focused on her heavy, resonant anger: “Finally, I can see you crystal clear/ Go ahead and sell me out, and I’ll lay your shit bare.” On the chorus, Adele wails that they could’ve had it alllllll, and she quakes with fury that this guy would have the temerity to fuck it all up. Adele told Spin, “It’s me saying, ‘Get the fuck out of my house’ instead of me begging him to come back.”
“Rolling In The Deep” is a simple song, but it doesn’t really belong to any particular genre. It’s definitely not the kind of self-conscious retro-soul that Adele and her peers came up singing, though it has some of that in its DNA. Adele herself has called it a “gospel-disco” song, but she says it was also inspired by the country and Southern blues that she heard while she was touring America. Adele really liked her tour bus driver, and that was his music. In that Spin story, Adele says, “He listened to all this amazing country music, and we’d rock out late at night, chain smoking and listening to Rascall Flatts. It was really exciting for me because I never grew up around [that music].” This will probably come up a lot in the column, but Adele seems like a very fun hang.
There are a few howling workouts on Adele’s records, but she’s mostly made her way in the world by singing huge, stately ballads. That’s not “Rolling In The Deep.” Instead, “Rolling In The Deep” is a singular record, a one-off. Adele wrote the song with Paul Epworth, and he played most of the instruments. Adele sang her own backup vocals, and she added her own high-heel tapping as part of the percussive track. Adele and Epworth’s original recording was just supposed to be a demo, and Adele was going to re-record it with Rick Rubin, who produced a few other tracks on her album 21. But she liked the version that she made with Epworth too much, so she simply released the demo.
“Rolling In The Deep” is so overplayed that I have a hard time hearing it with fresh ears. I always liked the song, but I’ve never fully understood how it became such a runaway train. The song definitely has some propulsive juice to it. Adele’s voice is massive and overwhelming, and she brings raw, tangible rage without losing her composure. Despite the simple, thumping beat, I think the track sounds less like disco and more like the stomp-clap Mumford/Lumineers folk-revival stuff that became popular soon afterward. (Maybe that’s the place where “Rolling In The Deep” had its impact on the music business.) I think Adele could’ve been a ferocious dance diva if that’s what she wanted, and I much prefer the “Rolling In The Deep” remix from her XL labelmate Jamie xx, which shows just how well her voice can work in a clubby context.
Nevertheless, “Rolling In The Deep” was a juggernaut. It hit every quadrant of the music-listening population and became the biggest hit of 2011. The song hung around the Hot 100 for more than a year, and it topped the Adult Contemporary chart for an insane 19 weeks. It also landed on virtually every genre chart that Billboard had — R&B, Mainstream Rock, Latin Pop. At the 2012 Grammys, Adele swept. “Rolling In The Deep” won Song Of The Year and Record Of The Year, while 21 took home Album Of The Year. During the telecast, Gwyneth Paltrow introduced Adele, who then belted out a no-frills version of “Rolling In The Deep.”
By the time “Rolling In The Deep” fell from the #1 spot, Adele’s album 21 was double platinum. It would go on to sell many, many more copies, becoming the closest thing to a Thriller-level phenomenon that this century has yet produced. The “Rolling In The Deep” single sold a lot of copies, too; it’s now gone platinum eight times over. “Rolling In The Deep” became a karaoke staple, and it racked up billions upon billions of streams. The song has lingered, too — to the point where Donald Trump, despite Adele’s objections, used it as campaign-rally hype-up music for a while. “Rolling In The Deep” was Adele’s tipping-point moment, the song that transformed her from a promising young star into a full-on cultural phenomenon. More hits followed. We’ll see a lot more of Adele in this column.
BONUS BEATS: Here’s video of Linkin Park leading a huge “Rolling In The Deep” singalong at the 2011 iTunes Festival in London, just a couple of days after the song fell out of the #1 spot in the US:
(Linkin Park’s highest charting single, 2000’s “In The End,” peaked at #2, though it didn’t reach that peak until 2002. It’s an 8.)
BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s former Number Ones artist Lil Wayne freestyling over the “Rolling In The Deep” instrumental on his 2011 mixtape Sorry 4 The Wait:
BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Aretha Franklin, an artist who’s been in this column a couple of times, covered “Rolling In The Deep” on her final album, 2014’s Aretha Franklin Sings The Great Diva Classics. Here’s her version:
BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s Jackie Chan leading a drunken “Rolling In The Deep” singalong in the 2016 Renny Harlin motion picture Skiptrace:
BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s Kelly Clarkson, an artist who’s been in this column a couple of times and who will soon return, roaring out a “Rolling In The Deep” cover on a 2021 quarantine-era episode of her daytime talk show:
THE 10S: DJ Khaled’s sleek, moody, endlessly quotable Drake/Rick Ross/Lil Wayne posse cut “I’m On One” peaked at #10 behind “Rolling In The Deep.” Ever made love to the woman of your dreams in a room full of money out in London as she screams? No? Well, it’s a 10.
The Number Ones: Twenty Chart-Topping Hits That Reveal The History Of Pop Music is out now via Hachette Books. The scars of your love, they leave me breathless. I can’t help feeling that you should buy the booooooooooooook.