As dawn was still rising on the New Year in 2011, the music industry was already humming with anticipation. A fast-emerging English songstress named Adele was about to release her sophomore album, 21, and there were signs it could be big. Three years earlier, in 2008, she released her debut album, 19, which earned praise and awards and also gave audiences and the industry just a glimpse of her immense talent and star potential. 19 hinted at a wide sound, a voice unleashed. All of the signs were right.
Taking the promise she showed on her debut album, expanding her influences and showcasing more of her incredible vocal talent, Adele dropped 21 and forever left her mark on music.
21, released Jan. 24, 2011, and Adele didn't come out of nowhere. 19 released to good reviews and solid chart performances for single "Chasing Pavements." Sporting a singer/songwriter, guitar-driven sound, the album made a strong first impression: At the 51st GRAMMY Awards, held in 2009, "Chasing Pavements" was nominated for Song Of The Year and Record Of The Year; it went on to win for Best Female Pop Vocal Performance, with Adele taking home the coveted Best New Artist award that night.
While 19 hinted at what was to come from Adele, 21 was an entirely different sound. She opened the album with lead single "Rolling In The Deep," a shrewd move that clearly indicated just how disparate this project would be. The low thrum of the repeated acoustic guitar in the intro that might signify a sense of familiarity quickly gives way to a wider, more intense sound. A steady, sharp drum beat builds tension, and the big, flourishing production on the chorus definitively moved Adele past her days as a no-frills songwriter.
What sticks out years later, though, are the emotions and the colossal talent on display across 21, even just on this opening track. It's no secret that 21 is an album of pain, born from a relationship with intense highs and a devastating ending. "It was horrible. I was miserable, I was lonely, I was sad, I was angry, I was bitter," Adele told The New York Times in 2015 about writing the album.
"Rolling In The Deep" oozes with that venom, the pleasure of bringing her ex to his knees, evident in the darker sound and pointed lyrics, which Adele belts with all of the considerable power behind her voice. "Rumour Has It" also features a similar sense of satisfaction: The track basks in the gossip that comes from the fallout of a relationship. The song reflected a continued growth in Adele's sound, too, this time in the form of modern vocal loops and decidedly retro swing.
Even as the rollout of 21 was happening, the universality of the album became undeniable. Entire features and large chunks of interviews from the time are dedicated to the idea of Adele as an avatar for everyone, from her starstruck nature around other celebrities to her penchant for swearing to the ease of which she captures the truths of heartbreak.
Listening now, it's still remarkable how there's a song or two on 21 to match any which emotional stage of a breakup. Ready to burn it all down? "Rolling In The Deep" is there for you. Longing for a new love? The funky "He Won't Go" or "I'll Be Waiting" deliver. And for those who just need to scream and cry, powerful ballads like "Set Fire To The Rain" and "Someone Like You" are Adele's emotional gifts to you.
The methods and avenues of relationships change as society and technology change with them, but the emotions are always the same. In her deepest moments of heartache, Adele understood this and put all of it into 21, ensuring a lasting impact on people's hearts and minds.
Plenty of albums have tapped into emotional truths; few have endured like 21. The timelessness of the music and the hugely broad appeal of its influences round out the album. Producer Jim Abbiss, who worked on 19, maintained some of the more soul-based and acoustic sounds from Adele's debut, while new faces to Adele's process, like Paul Epworth and the prolific Rick Rubin, added wrinkles that appealed to a much wider audience.
The prominent use of minor keys in the Rubin-produced "Lovesong" stands out, as do the jazz-based horns and rhythm of the Adele-Epworth collaboration "I'll Be Waiting." At the same time, the whole album is accessible to all through its backbone of piano-based arrangements, with a sound still relevant today and into the future.
As streaming rose to prominence in the 2010s, and as it continues to dominate in 2021, it is staggering to look back at the mammoth sales numbers of 21: 5.82 million units in 2011 and 4.41 million the next year, with the album topping the U.S. sales charts in both years. The only other artist to even crack 4 million in a year in the U.S. in the 2010s? Also Adele: Her follow-up album, 25, sold 7.44 million copies in 2015.
As of late 2019, 21 had sold 31 million copies worldwide in its lifespan. These are sales numbers that rarely happen in the 21st century—largely due to the large-scale shift to streaming—yet here is Adele putting up massive figures, regardless. The continued commercial success of 21, even within the last several years, is yet another testament to just how deeply Adele connected with audiences, cutting across all generations and musical tastes.
By any metric, 21 accomplished what few albums could in the 2010s. Aside from its mind-boggling sales, the album swept the 54th GRAMMY Awards in 2012: "Rolling In The Deep" won for Record Of The Year, Song Of The Year and Best Short Form Music Video; "Someone Like You" won for Best Pop Solo Performance; and 21 won for Best Pop Vocal Album and Album Of The Year.
Still, 21 continues to resonate with audiences in 2021 as much as it did in 2011. Boasting a wide array of musical elements, the album pushed Adele's considerable talents to even newer heights. And for millions of people worldwide, it will forever embody the exact feeling of heartbreak in all its complicated messiness.