In The Ones of the ’10s, I’m reviewing every single that hit #1 on the Billboard Hot 100 in the 2010s and working my way up into the present.
Adele- “Rolling In The Deep”
HIT #1: May 21, 2011
STAYED AT #1: 7 weeks
If you were listening to pop music in 2011 then you pretty much knew what to expect: loud club bangers with repetitive and catchy beats and choruses, AutoTune voices, and very meticulously structured for mass appeal.
But one day you hear a song that cuts through that noise starting with muted guitar strumming, a big female voice singing venomously over a recent heartbreak contemplating over what could have been that builds and builds into an explosive chorus. All of this is done in a retro soul/R&B style that sounded nothing like what was popular in the 2011 pop mainstream all coming from a British singer who had moderate success a few years earlier with her debut album.
And yet that song winds up blowing the fuck up becoming a huge #1 hit throughout the spring and summer, becoming the biggest single of the year, propelling an album centered on that singer’s heartbreak to sell in unheard-of numbers for the digital age saving the music industry, and all of a sudden that singer becomes not just a superstar but one of the biggest stars in the universe period.
That’s what happened with Adele and “Rolling In The Deep.” A song she quickly wrote in the bitter aftermath of a breakup that would wind up as Billboard’s biggest single of 2011, quickly becoming a modern pop classic, and launching Adele, arguably the biggest and best pop star of the 2010s, into the stratosphere.
It’s hard to overstate just how massive her album 21 was. A once in a lifetime phenomenon from a once in a lifetime talent. The album was a huge juggernaut debuting at #1, spending 24 non-consecutive weeks at the top eventually going Diamond, a very rare feat for a 2010s album, and becoming the top-selling album of both 2011 and 2012. It also launched three #1 singles beginning right with the opening track which would win Record of the Year and Song of the Year at the 2012 Grammys alongside 21 winning Album of the Year. While Adele has never disappointed, you can argue that she’s never done a better song than “Rolling In The Deep.”
Growing up in London with a single mother, Adele Adkins showed a passion for music at a young age. Being a big fan of the Spice Girls as a child, she would perform their songs for her mom and her friends at house parties. Growing up, Adele started developing her singing voice from the old records of Etta James and Ella Fitzgerald to the then modern R&B of Mary J. Blige and Destiny’s Child. Along the way, she began playing guitar and writing her own songs.
Adele would further her interests in music by studying at the BRIT School for Performing Arts & Technology with classmates that included fellow British pop stars Leona Lewis, Amy Winehouse, and Jessie J. (Leona Lewis would get to #1 with 2008’s “Bleeding Love.” It’s a 7. Amy Winehouse’s highest-charting single, 2006’s “Rehab” peaked at #9. It’s a 10! Jessie J’s highest-charting single, the 2014 Ariana Grande/Nicki Minaj collaboration “Bang Bang” peaked at #3. It’s a 5.)
After graduating in May 2006, Adele caught the attention of Richard Russell, head of the independent XL Recordings label, after catching some demos she originally made for a school project that a friend had posted on MySpace offering Adele a record deal. Once signed, Adele began making her way in the British music scene through live performances that helped to build up hype and praise from the UK music press and audiences. This, in turn, helped Adele to win the first-ever Critics Choice Award (now called the Rising Star Award) at the 2008 Brit Awards, the British equivalent of the Grammys, immediately heightening her profile.
In 2008, Adele released her debut album 19, named after the age she wrote the songs at, becoming a massive hit in Britain debuting at the top of the UK Albums Chart and its second single, the post-breakup torch song “Chasing Pavements,” debuting and peaking at #2. With 19, Adele garnered immediate critical praise for her retro-soul, folk-influenced music and unmatched singing talents. At the time, Adele was part of a wave of retro-soul influenced British female singers with Amy Winehouse being the biggest of them to which Adele was often compared to at first. But Adele didn’t have Winehouse’s destructive later deadly lifestyle and her down to earth image helped make Adele more relatable to her fans.
Despite the success in her home country, Adele was practically an unknown in America when she performed on a high-profile 2008 episode of Saturday Night Live that featured an appearance from then-Republican vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin. The attention from that episode helped to launch Adele’s popularity in the States with 19 going to #1 on iTunes the next day and peaking at #10 on the Billboard Album 200 chart. “Chasing Pavements” also became a moderate hit peaking on the Hot 100 at #21 culminating in Adele winning the Best New Artist Grammy in 2009. So Adele was already an established artist by the time she made her sophomore effort 21 but that was nothing compared to the blockbuster level success she would soon see.
Adele wrote “Rolling In The Deep” in only three hours the day after breaking up with her boyfriend. Originally, she had envisioned the song as a ballad but producer Paul Epworth encouraged her to turn it into the fiery broken-hearted rage anthem you hear. Studio engineer Mark Rankin remembers Adele recording her vocals in just two takes while sitting on a sofa, “It really was that good,” he explained.
Adele described “Rolling In The Deep” as a kiss-off to her ex, “It’s my musical equivalent of saying things in the heat of the moment and word-vomiting. It was my reaction to being told my life was going to be lonely and boring and rubbish, and that I was a weak person if I didn’t stay in the relationship. I was very insulted, and wrote that as a sort of f–k you.” The title comes from a poetic phrase for a ship far out at sea symboling the end of a relationship though Adele has said she got the phrase from the British phrase “roll back” meaning to have someone’s back in a relationship which is how she felt with her boyfriend before the breakup.
For me and many people my age, it’s hard to judge “Rolling In The Deep” with fresh ears. I remember first hearing the song in my sixth-grade chorus class where one of the classmates pulled up the music video for us to watch. Now, I wasn’t that caught up with pop music at the time so I don’t remember thinking a lot about the song. But then shortly after my parents get 21 as an anniversary gift from my sister who’s studying abroad in Scotland and all of a sudden I’m hearing “Rolling In The Deep” and the entire album a bunch of times in the car. It almost became a way of life. I’m sure many others feel the same. In a society where music listening was becoming increasingly fragmented, Adele and the success of 21 proved that the monoculture could still happen and people can still unite over the same music. It helps that “Rolling In The Deep” is one hell of a song.
Lyrically, you can certainly hear what Adele talks about in writing in the heat of the moment and just putting down whatever comes into your head. “Rolling In The Deep” is a song that chronicles the aftermath of a bitter breakup. Adele thought she had it all with this guy but he played with her heart and now there’s a fire starting in her heart. Adele is so angry and hurt that she warns her ex that she’ll have her revenge by laying his shit bare all while she thinks about what could have been thinking the relationship was going to work out. This is some deeply serious stuff.
This is the type of situation where you don’t how to feel and as a result, you start feeling a whole bunch of emotions at once and “Rolling In The Deep” manages to capture that mindset so perfectly. My favorite part has to be backing vocals who bring a haunting quality and intensity along with the instrumentation conveying the feelings of heartbreak and despair. A song like this requires a singer who can bring intensity and energy to which Adele manages to pull off so well.
One thing people have noted about Adele is how she manages to sound older than her age and brings a certain amount of maturity that you wouldn’t expect for a bitter post-breakup song. Listening here, it’s weird to think that you’re hearing the voice of someone in their early ‘20s. I can’t think of anyone else who could have made “Rolling In The Deep” sound as good as Adele did. There really isn’t a vocalist in the 2010s who can sing and deliver a song like Adele. She manages to sell this heartbreak with a certain amount of class, grit, and maturity turning it into classic yet relatable pop music. That’s quite a trick!
Adele described “Rolling In The Deep” as a “dark bluesy gospel disco tune.” As weird as that may sound, I can hear all of those influences at work. The song has a bluesy intensity in the emotion and instrumentation while the backing vocals help to add a gospel tinge further helping to sell the emotion. The disco touches come from the kick-drum pattern and Adele’s defiant diva-like performance almost reminiscent of Gloria Gaynor’s 1979 #1 disco classic “I Will Survive.” (It’s a 10!) I would also add that “Rolling In The Deep” shares a lot with the hard-hitting gritty soul and R&B music of the ‘60s and ‘70s. It’s this combination of sounds and styles that explains why “Rolling In The Deep” was able to amass such a huge amount of crossover popularity and appeal.
I don’t know what else to say about “Rolling In The Deep.” It’s such a perfect pop song that it feels to me like it has always existed. I can’t imagine the 2010s without “Rolling In The Deep” and I certainly can’t think of anything that could make it better than it already is. Every element here is so perfectly placed: the opening guitar strums, the kick-drum beat, the haunting backing vocals, the piano flourishes, the little bit of electric guitar on the bridge, and of course Adele’s righteous vocal performance. More importantly, the way it builds into the chorus is also perfect building up the intensity and emotions before letting it all out. And on the final chorus, it all builds up like everyone is giving it their all before suddenly ending. Every element matches the intensity and complements each other. It’s a song I’ll be enjoying until the day I die.
While Adele has made a lot of great music, more of which will wind up in this column eventually, she’s never made a song as great and powerful as “Rolling In The Deep.” That’s an accomplishment you can’t take away.
BONUS BEATS: Here’s “Rolling In The Deep” soundtracking a scene on a 2011 episode of 90210:
BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s “Rolling In The Deep” being used in the fourth-season finale of Gossip Girl:
BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s “Rolling In The Deep” being used on a 2011 episode of One Tree Hill:
BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s Linkin Park performing a stripped-down cover of “Rolling In The Deep” at the 2011 iTunes Festival:
(Linkin Park’s highest-charting single, 2001’s “In The End,” peaked at #2. It’s a 7.)
BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s Lil Wayne rapping over a “Rolling In The Deep” sample on the 2011 mixtape title track “Sorry 4 The Wait:”
(Lil Wayne will eventually appear in this column)
BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s two–time chart-topper Aretha Franklin’s cover of “Rolling In The Deep” that she included on her last album, 2014’s Aretha Franklin Sings The Great Diva Classics. You know you’ve made a great song when Aretha Franklin covers it.
BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s the scene from 2016’s Skiptrace where Jackie Chan sings “Rolling In The Deep” before the whole Mongolian tribe joins in:
BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s Greta Van Fleet’s hard rock take on “Rolling In The Deep” they recorded for a 2018 Spotify session:
THE 10S OF THE ‘10S: Lady Gaga’s gloriously retro-‘80s synth-pop pastiche, “The Edge Of Glory,” complete with a saxophone solo from Clarence Clemons right before his sudden death peaked at #3 behind “Rolling In The Deep.” It’s a 9.
Lupe Fiasco’s catchy inspirational rant against Atlantic Records, “The Show Goes On,” peaked at #9 behind “Rolling In The Deep.” It’s also a 9.