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.
Prestige blockbusters don’t come along very often, and they really don’t come along very often this century, but that’s what Adele’s sophomore album 21 was. For the music business, the album was a magical beast that had been thought extinct — the Loch Ness Monster waddling up onshore and vomiting a pile of gold at the label’s feet. Lead single “Rolling In The Deep” was the biggest song of the year, and follow-up “Someone Like You” was the first bare voice-and-piano ballad ever to reach #1. When 2011 drew to a close, 21 was already quintuple platinum, on its way to selling a staggering 14 million copies in the US alone. The music industry hadn’t seen sales like that in years.
Adele didn’t really have to do anything to notch a third Hot 100 chart-topper. Instead, Columbia, her American label, merely had to take a look at its numbers. “Set Fire To The Rain,” one of many grand ballads from 21, had been putting up serious figures even before Columbia released the song as a single. Common sense has it that you don’t follow one big, sad ballad with another, and “Set Fire To The Rain” wasn’t as vast an international hit as Adele’s previous singles; in the UK, her homeland, it didn’t even crack the top 10. But in America, Adele went straight back to #1 with a song that, at least to my mind, really isn’t even all that special. It didn’t matter. She was a boulder rolling downhill, and she would not be stopped.
Much like “Someone Like You,” Adele’s previous single, “Set Fire To The Rain” is a case where the demo is the final version of the song. Unlike “Someone Like You,” though, “Set Fire To The Rain” doesn’t sound like a demo. Like virtually every song on 21, “Set Fire To The Rain” is a song that Adele wrote from a post-breakup hole. The song’s title sounds mystical and poetic, but it came from a concrete scenario. Adele and her soon-to-be ex were arguing in a restaurant, and Adele stormed out to smoke a cigarette, mostly so that the guy couldn’t see how upset she was. It was raining outside, so Adele had a hard time lighting up. If you’ve ever been a smoker, you can feel her pain.
Adele’s collaborator on “Set Fire To The Rain” was Fraser T. Smith, the former Rick Wakeman/Craig David sideman who’s been in this column for producing and co-writing Taio Cruz’s “Break Your Heart.” Smith found his first real success by working with UK rappers like Kano and Tinchy Stryder, and he’d later make big, swollen stadium-rap with London star Stormzy. Adele loves UK rap, so those credits might’ve helped bring them together, but there’s absolutely no UK rap flavor in “Set Fire To The Rain.” The song doesn’t even have some of the old-school R&B liveliness of some of Adele’s better album tracks. Instead, it’s a ballad built for an old-school chest-thumping belter, and Adele knew how to play that role.
Fraser T. Smith produced “Set Fire To The Rain,” and he co-wrote the song with Adele. Smith also played piano, guitar, and bass. Former Del Amitri member and busy session guy Ash Sloan played drums. Cellist Rosie Danvers, a Kanye West/Coldplay collaborator who’d also worked on Adele’s first album, arranged the strings. Adele originally intended to record the final version of the song with Rick Rubin. Smith added all those strings to the demo, but he kept Adele’s original vocal take, and she ultimately decided that it was the best version of the song. That’s the one that we hear on the album.
If anyone other than Adele had sung “Set Fire To The Rain,” the song would be a nonentity. Other than her voice, nothing stands out much. “Someone Like You” got a lot of power from its starkness — the big feelings that Adele conjures with just her voice and a piano. “Set Fire To The Rain” goes in the opposite direction. It’s a stormy easy-listening ballad, the kind of song that seems intended to soundtrack a climactic montage in some generic prime-time network drama. The piano and the strings all hit the cues that you’d expect.
The song’s lyrics only barely get into distinct emotions. The title is evocative but also pretty meaningless, and the other imagery doesn’t exactly soar: “My hands, they were strong, but my knees were far too weak/ To stand in your arms without falling to your feet.” Some of the lyrics resonate, like the idea that the guy keeps setting up games that he’s never going to let Adele win. But Adele works best for me when her lyrics are direct and conversational, and “Set Fire To The Rain” isn’t that.
Still, Adele’s combination of power and control is something to behold. The chorus sounds big because she makes it sound big, howling over the swirling and cinematic strings without losing her raw-nerve vulnerability. I really like the way she spits out the word watch: “Uuuuatch it burn as I touch your face.” She hits the big, showy final note without sounding like a singing-show contestant. There’s always personality in her delivery, and it’s enough to elevate what would otherwise be a sleepy and forgettable ballad. But I don’t understand why anyone seized on “Set Fire To The Rain” when Adele’s album is full of bigger, more commanding ballads like “Don’t You Remember.” When she hits that chorus? That’s a whole different game.
But people really did seize on “Set Fire To The Rain.” The song was the people’s champ. Before Columbia released “Set Fire To The Rain” as a single, the song kept pushing its way on to the Hot 100, reaching as high as #72 on sales alone. By the time the Columbia people sat down to plot out their continuing strategy, “Set Fire To The Rain” had already sold more than 700,000 downloads.
The label execs checked with radio-station programmers, and those programmers wanted “Set Fire To The Rain” as the next single. One of those Columbia guys told Billboard, “Our research found more programmer preference for ‘Set Fire to the Rain.'” That kind of boardroom-talk is profoundly unromantic, but that’s how these decisions get made. “Rumour Has It,” the label’s initial choice for Adele’s next single, didn’t get a push until months later, and it peaked at #16. (I think “Rumour Has It” is a way better song, but that one didn’t get a video, either.)
“Set Fire To The Rain” didn’t need a music video to reach #1, especially since another clip already did the work of a music video. Adele sang “Set Fire To The Rain” live at London’s Royal Albert Hall, and she hit all the same notes in person that she nailed on record. The clip is shot beautifully, and it’s got Adele looking a bit like Emily Blunt. A year after “Set Fire To The Rain” reached #1, that live version won a Grammy for Best Pop Solo Performance. The Grammys would take any excuse to just pile statuettes in Adele’s arms.
That “Set Fire To The Rain” Grammy was just a victory lap for Adele. A few days after the song first reached #1, Adele achieved her destiny and blew straight through the Grammys, winning Album, Record, and Song Of The Year — all the general-category awards except for Best New Artist, which Adele had already taken home three years earlier. That 2012 Best New Artist award went to Bon Iver, whose debut album was already five years old. Remember that shit? That was weird. Our guy Bon Iver beat out Nicki Minaj, J. Cole, and Skrillex, three artists who will eventually figure into this column, as well as the Band Perry, who will not. But it was Adele’s night. She sang “Rolling In The Deep” on the telecast, and she walked away with six awards. Lady Gaga, Adele’s main competitor in most of the big categories, never stood a chance.
Adele soon added more awards to her shelf. Before 2012 was over, she and her “Rolling In The Deep” collaborator Paul Epworth wrote and recorded the theme song for Skyfall, the best of the Daniel Craig James Bond movies. That song was another big hit, reaching #8 on the Hot 100. (It’s a 6.) “Skyfall” won Adele an Oscar for Best Original Song. All of this seemed preordained. The second that 21 became a runaway hit, it was written in the stars that Adele would sing a Bond theme and that it would win an Oscar.
“Skyfall” would’ve made a nice capper for Adele’s imperial era. She could’ve retired undefeated after the 21 album cycle wound down, and she would’ve been rich forever. But Adele had more big, operatic ballads left to sing. We’ll see her in this column again.
BONUS BEATS: Here’s little baby 12-year-old Sabrina Carpenter covering “Set Fire To The Rain” in 2011, when she was still two years away from getting cast on Girl Meets World:
(Sabrina Carpenter’s highest-charting single, 2021’s “Skin,” peaked at #48. She’ll be a supporting character in at least one future column.)
BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s French Montana, Cheeze, and the late Chinx Drugz rapping over a chipmunked-up “Set Fire To The Rain” sample on French’s 2012 mixtape track “100”:
(French Montana’s highest-charting single, the 2017 Swae Lee collab “Unforgettable,” peaked at #3. It’s a 5.)
BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s Fifth Harmony singing an impressive “Set Fire To The Rain” cover in 2012, when they were still contestants on the US version of The X Factor:
(Fifth Harmony’s highest-charting single, the 2016 Ty Dolla $ign collab “Work From Home,” peaked at #4. It’s a 10. Camila Cabello will eventually appear in this column.)
BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s Kelly Clarkson covering “Set Fire To The Rain” on her talk show earlier this year:
(Kelly Clarkson has already been in this column a couple of times, and she’ll be back very soon.)
The Number Ones: Twenty Chart-Topping Hits That Reveal The History Of Pop Music is out now on paperback via Hachette Books. Don’t set fire to the book. That would be weird. But I guess you can do whatever you want with your copy, as long as you buy it. You can do that here.