When Adele’s booming voice first crooned out, “don’t underestimate the things that I will do,” you would have been a fool to doubt her. The English phenom released her debut album in 2008, named 19 for her age while writing most of the songs, and since then, her life and the world have never been the same. Within four years, the circus of insanity surrounding Adele’s record-shattering sales would earn her not one, but several places in the Guinness Book of World Records. Adele is the first female artist ever to have two albums in the Billboard Top 200 at the same time. Her follow up album to 19, 21, would also go on to be the longest running number one album by a solo female artist of all-time. That album also ranks fourth among the most sales for a U.K. album of all-time among Beatles and Pink Floyd albums that have been around for almost fifty years. Moreover, VH1 named her the fifth most important woman in music ever, beating out Shania Twain, Cher, Sheryl Crow, Annie Lennox, Celine Dion, and many others who had been music fixtures for decades. For a few years, Adele really had it all. Yet, it has been four years since the release of 21, and a new album does not seem imminent. What happened?
Adele was born Adele Laurie Blue Adkins in London in 1988. She began singing pop from a young age, emulating the Spice Girls as a party trick for her single mother. Adele is best known for her blue-eyed soul though, a sub-genre influenced by the American Motown greats but stylized and popularized by white, mostly English artists in the 60’s and 70’s. These artists included Englishmen like Dusty Springfield, Eric Burdon, Tom Jones, and the American artists Chris Clark and the Righteous Brothers. Adele got into R&B after moving to the tougher streets of South London, where she discovered Aaliyah, Destiny’s Child, Mary J. Blige, Gabrielle, and Alicia Keyes. Jazz artists like Etta James and Ella Fitzgerald would round out her vocal repertoire’s acrobatics, scales, and control. Pop, jazz and soul, these were the ingredients for earth-shaking success.
True to her status as the 21st century’s first true musical diva, Adele got her big break on Myspace. A friend posted her demo to the social networking website where it was discovered by Richard Russell, an executive at independent label XL Recordings. The small label has made a huge name for itself with world-changing artists like Beck, M.I.A., Prodigy, the White Stripes, Sigur Ros, and Radiohead. Adele signed to XL in September 2006 and slowly set to work with her new managers and producers on putting together new songs. She was a breakout success at the 2008 BRIT Awards for the Critics’ Choice Award, and critics agreed that the young woman would soon be a superstar. They were right.
The single “Chasing Pavements” was released two weeks before the album 19 dropped, and in that time, it generated substantial buzz and overwhelming praise for the young artist. The awards and nominations flooded in: a Mercury Prize, an Urban Music Award for Best Jazz Act, a Music of Black Origin Award. By the time the album was released to the public, Adele’s name was already everywhere on everybody’s lips. The album debuted at number one in the U.K. It didn’t fare quite as well stateside, but an admirable U.S. performance laid the groundwork for her American invasion.
After an appearance on Saturday Night Live, the album spiked to 11th on the U.S. charts, suddenly selling 25,000 copies. At the 51st Grammys, Adele would go on to win the Best New Artist award, further cementing her charge into the mainstream. The single “Chasing Pavements” would also win the Grammy for Best Female Pop Vocal Performance. Critics praised the warmth of her melodies, the knockout strength of her city-flattening voice, and also its sultry, rich smoothness. The album would go on to sell over seven million copies.
The sold-out world tour that followed 19’s release would also start to reveal the first hints of problems for the youthful vocalist. Adele cancelled countless US tour dates in order to spend time with a boy. Only the SNL appearance saved her from complete irrelevance in America. Fortunately, that torrid love affair came to a sudden ending, and her music was all the better for it. Adele’s songwriting for her next album was heavily inspired by the breakup. It was also inspired by American music, ironically, with Adele drawing heavily from the country, roots, and Americana genres of music. Chief amongst her new influences, however, was gospel.
The hit single from her sophomore album, 21, “Rolling in the Deep,” was built around a dark, bluesy, gospel revenge paean against her former lover. She describes it as a literal “f— you,” to her old partner. The song also featured the biggest production for an Adele song to date, with the once acoustic artist now utilizing martial beats, a chorus of back singers, relentless piano drives, and dramatic, chamber-filling orchestration. Critics responded strongly to the emotion in her voice and the improvement in songwriting from her first album. The song would be the centerpiece of a masterful second album that shattered genre conventions. By the end of that year, the album had sold over 3.4 million copies in England alone. It had taken the number one chart position in more than 26 countries including the United States and Adele’s native United Kingdom. Globally, it was the best-selling album for two years running. 21 has sold nearly 30 million copies to date.
After shattering records that hadn’t been touched since the Beatles by forging one of the best-selling albums of all-time, there aren’t many places left to go but down. In October 2011, Adele suffered a vocal-cord hemorrhage that forced her into emergency surgery. With the value of Adele’s voice unquestionable, no expense was spared and many thousands of fingers were crossed in frightened anticipation. A full recovery was reported, however, and the following February she was ready to make her live comeback. That performance at the Grammy’s wasn’t nearly as moving as her album’s award sweep itself, tying Beyonce for most Grammy’s in one night by a female artist. Celebrity had begun to take its toll, however, and Adele looked visibly shaken as she was accosted onstage by famed Ukranian prankster Vitalii Sediuk. The following October, she would record one final track, the theme to the James Bond film Skyfall. The song was largely successful, selling millions of copies of the soundtrack, but Adele had decided that she needed a break.
Adele’s music career has, once again, been put on hold for personal reasons. Adele has not released a recorded a track since Skyfall, in October 2012, though she has several times teased that she might soon start serious work an album entitled 25. However, her agents have said that there will not be a new album for at least another year, possibly longer. Instead, Adele’s attention has returned to her private life. The artist has apparently mended her heart since the breakup chronicled in 21, having moved on to entrepreneur Simon Konecki. She and Konecki had their first child in late 2012. Since then the couple has vigilantly stayed out of the public eye, even successfully suing a photo agency that published pictures of their infant son.
It is too early to say if Adele is done for good, but she’s certainly out of the spotlight for the time being. Rumors continue to persist that Adele’s third album could be a surprise release, in the style of her hero Beyonce’s self-titled 2013 album. At this point, they seem to be only rumors though. You can’t blame Adele if she seems strangely content with her two massive successes however. The girl from the tough South London neighborhood now makes as much as $50 million a year in royalties alone.