Music

Adele’s Return to No. 1 Is Almost Too Easy

Another sulking ballad, another instant hit. But will it stick?

A blonde woman stands on a stage, singing against a black starry backdrop.
Gareth Cattermole/Getty Images

A little less than a dozen years ago, in February 2010, Sade—the British group led by the striking Nigerian-born singer Sade Adu—debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard album chart with Soldier of Love. It was the group’s first album since their 2000 opus Lovers Rock, released nearly a full decade earlier. And yet Soldier opened bigger than its predecessor, with a half-million in first-week sales, about 35 percent higher than the debut of Sade’s 2000 album. This was stunning, not only because Ms. Adu was then 51 years old, but also because during Sade’s decade away from recording, the music business had basically cratered. The aughts was the decade of Napster, record labels suing their own customers, the mainstreaming of digital downloads via iTunes, and the “unbundling” of the album into a la carte tracks (Spotify wasn’t in America yet and wouldn’t put the industry back in the black for about another half-decade). And yet somehow Sade—this jazzy British lounge-and-B combo, led by the Queen of Sophisti‑pop—rolled peak-CD-era sales numbers and even scored a Top 10 R&B smash with the album’s bumping title track. Industryites at the time marveled at Sade’s ability to go away for that long, come back as if the music industry’s lost decade had never happened, and find a huge, hungry audience still waiting.

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In short, Sade might be the one act who could go away even longer than Adele does and come back to a hero’s welcome on the charts. (Reportedly, Sade are working on a new LP—but that’s what they said two years ago, and they still have nothing to show for it.) This makes sense: Sade and Adele make music for adults, perceived as timeless and consumed by listeners that may listen only to one new album every couple of years. But while both make fans miss them, Adele so far only disappears for four to six years at a time, not a decade (yet). Maybe it’s because the stakes are higher for her than they are for Sade—an opening week of a half-million would be a comedown for Adele. And even at the peak of “Smooth Operator” (No. 5, 1985), Sade never topped the Hot 100.

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This week, Adele landed her fifth Hot 100 No. 1. And from the moment we heard “Easy on Me,” we all kinda knew her return to the Billboard chart’s perch was a foregone conclusion.

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Maybe that’s because the song is resolutely on-brand, a modest permutation of the sound Ms. Adele Adkins has sold mountains of throughout her career.* The lead single from Adele’s forthcoming album 30 vaults from No. 68 to No. 1 in a single bound. That’s actually a really impressive chart feat, more so than all the singles that have debuted at No. 1 on the chart lately. The only reason “Easy on Me” ranked so low on last week’s chart was because it sneaked onto it, thanks to just five hours of streams, sales and airplay before the prior week’s data-collection ended. That’s how eager the loyal Adele fanbase was to consume her new material.

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Only if you’re one of these serious fans will you notice that “Easy on Me” is any different from her prior torchy chart-toppers, most especially 2011’s “Someone Like You” and 2015’s “Hello.” It’s a bit brighter-sounding than its predecessors but still solidly in their wheelhouse. “Hello” in particular is the obvious springboard for the new hit. Adele co-wrote “Easy” with journeyman Greg Kurstin, the same writer she worked with on “Hello,” and they have tweaked their formula. “Hello” was in F‑minor and sounded like it, brooding and booming with a thunderous chorus. “Easy on Me,” by contrast, is in F-major and soars as much as it sulks, with Adele lilting through the chorus’s money line, “Go EAAA-ee-ee-ee-ee-ee-easy on me, baby.” Stirring as that refrain is, the verse lyrics are still pretty heartrending: “I know there is hope in these waters/ But I can’t bring myself to swim/ When I am drowning in this silence/ Baby, let me in.” Where predecessor “Hello” was presented as an abject apology—either to a lover or a long-lost friend—“Easy on Me” is a more assertive appeal, likely to a child that came from a broken relationship. (Adele knows a thing or two about that—the broken relationships and the kids who come from them.)

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Subtle adjustments like these are what pass for artistic growth in the Adele oeuvre, which otherwise reflects the artist’s resolute insistence on sticking to her lane. And fans love her for it. One critic at the Evening Standard, in his five-star review of “Easy on Me,” raves that Adele “still sounds impervious to today’s pop music trends. No bombastic hyperpop or anodyne reggaeton here.” (Mate, if the reggaeton you’re listening to is anodyne, you’re doing it wrong. ¡Pero yo divago!) To the critic’s point, it is remarkable that Adele adjusts her sound so little and continues topping the charts. Taylor Swift and Drake, both roughly Adele’s age and certainly in her tier of pop stardom, not only come back with new material more often, but they also are sonic searchers and coolhunters. Promiscuous collaborator Drake co-opts new hip-hop trends seemingly every quarter. Self-powered songwriter Swift changes up her sound every album or two and has even tried her hand at rapping. Adele has no interest in any of that, and here she is, No. 1 again. No current pop act is more adept at creating her own weather.

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That includes the blustery weather in Adele’s videos—the “Easy on Me” clip is itself a continuation of “Hello.” As she did with co-songwriter Kurstin, Adele brought back Canadian director Xavier Dolan, who lensed the 2015 minimovie. And you are meant to notice that she’s leaving the same dusty house she occupied six years ago, it’s still sweater weather, still windy out there, and all this is still murder on poor Adele’s cell-phone signal. (She has at least ditched that flip-phone that was already ancient in 2015, but her smartphone looks pretty busted.) The “plot,” such as it is, has progressed some: Adele is leaving that house, our parasocial observers tell us, as a metaphor for walking out of her marriage to Simon Konecki, father of her nine-year-old son Angelo. As she drives away pulling a towtruck laden with bric-a-brac, sheet music blows out and litters the road—our girl, presumably, bidding adieu to previous odes to heartbreak while delivering a new weeper. As far back as 21, the blockbuster CD that made Adele the top seller of the 2010s, her music was already something of a telenovela. Now she’s openly presenting her leadoff singles like chapters in a Lifetime miniseries.

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This consistent branding explains how the London-gone-L.A. chanteuse can, Sade-like, go into total radio silence for years and then reemerge seemingly as supernova as ever. But like Sade, Adele can’t do anything about the way the music industry evolves while she’s out of commission, and she Rip Van Winkled through a rather significant half-decade in the biz. Vinyl trounced the CD. (Though her prior blockbuster 25 did quite well on LP, it mostly sold to folks buying silvery discs.) A new generation of lovelorn late-’10s and early-’20s artists took their own runs at the Adele-style stark ballad, from voice-cracking lad Lewis Capaldi to Gen-Z heartbreak queen Olivia Rodrigo. But perhaps most seismic, especially to the Adele business model, is that Spotify ate the industry.

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As of this week, we now have data on what the streaming era means for Adele. In a way, it’s useful for chart analysts like me that she churns out such consistent product—it allows for a pretty clean apples-to-apples comparison. You may recall that when Adele made her prior massive comeback, with the 25 album and “Hello” single, she broke a lot of records. The album in particular was a monster, selling 3.3 million copies in seven days and beating a 15-year-old chart benchmark by ’N Sync. Its followup 30 is still a month away, and we’ll see how that does on the album chart—but focusing just on the 2015 and 2021 singles, the comparison is stark. “Hello” broke the record for most digital downloads sold in a week, 1.11 million, a mark it will probably hold forever now that the dollar-download has eroded as a commercial product in the age of the stream. Eroded by … how much, exactly? Try over 90 percent: “Easy on Me” sold 74,000 copies in its first full week. Even if we lump in the sales it racked up in that initial five hours that fell into the prior chart week (you can think of this like Hollywood adding Thursday preview grosses to a tentpole movie’s opening-weekend gross), that only takes “Easy” to 89,000 in initial sales. The sad part is, 89,000 is now considered a strong digital-sales number, topped only by the likes of monster digital-sellers BTS. Even Taylor Swift doesn’t top 100K song downloads in a week anymore.

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Of course, the Hot 100 is composed of three elements: sales, airplay, and streams. Surely Adele is setting records elsewhere? At radio, yes: “Easy on Me” made the biggest debut in the history of Billboard’s all-format Radio Songs chart, opening at an instant No. 4 in terrestrial radio audience. The prior benchmark was set in February 2011 by Lady Gaga’s “Born This Way,” which opened at No. 6 in airplay. Longtime readers of my Slate No. 1 hits series will recall that radio is usually weeks, sometimes months behind on songs that opened big in downloads and streams and might even have already topped the Hot 100. Any song that opens among radio’s five most played songs, out of the box, is remarkable. It’s only when you dig a little deeper into Adele’s new radio record that the luster dims a bit. The fact is, radio audiences are down across the board, so while “Easy’s” weekly audience of 65 million listeners is, truly, an amazing start, it’s lower than the 79 million Gaga’s “Born” opened to in 2011. It’s also lower than the 73 million Adele’s own “Hello” garnered in 2015, when it hit a mere No. 9 in airplay. Radio is still a sizable factor in how songs become hits in 2021, but not as big as it was the last time Adele pushed a leadoff single.

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Which leaves streams, the 800-lb. gorilla of ’20s hit-making. The reason the music business became a money machine again in the late ’10s, at least for the labels and publishers, is the ubiquity and steady revenue of Spotify, Apple Music, and the other music DSPs. (Insert rant here about how streamers still don’t pay creators near enough.) Back in 2015, Adele did release “Hello” on Spotify, but withheld her 25 album from streaming services for several months. That would be unthinkable now. Next month, the 30 album will surely launch on Spotify the same day the CD hits big-box stores (whichever ones still sell discs at all, that is—another thing that’s changed since ’15). As for the single, “Easy on Me” launched on Spotify and the other streamers the same day the download appeared on iTunes and the video on YouTube. The result: an opening-week total of 53.9 million U.S. streams. That’s … good. It’s the highest streaming total of the week, but only the fifth-largest streaming total of the year, beaten by two of Olivia Rodrigo’s singles (one of them, “Drivers License,” twice) and Drake’s “Way 2 Sexy.” It’s also, oddly, lower than the 61.6 million streams “Hello” opened to in 2015, when the number of Spotify users was a fraction of what it is now. (It appears that back then, the “Hello” video also opened bigger.) If Rodrigo and Drake are the current queen and perpetual king of streaming, Adele is a lady-in-waiting.

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All of this data suggests that “Easy on Me” might not be as culturally ubiquitous and long-lasting a hit as Adele’s prior chart-toppers—that all the attention it’s drawing this week might be as front-loaded and short-lived as Taylor Swift’s “Look What You Made Me Do” was in 2017. And maybe that’s okay—in 2015, “Hello” was a probably unrepeatable phenomenon, a cultural meme and a proof point for my AC/DC Rule packed into a single song. “Easy” is a pleasant, impressively sung but fundamentally safe song—the chart equivalent of Michael Jackson’s “I Just Can’t Stop Loving You,” the lead single from his Thriller followup Bad—and 30 might contain bolder selections. (After all, 25’s coolest single turned out to be the frisky, Max Martin–produced “Send My Love (To Your New Lover),” a No. 8 hit in 2016.)

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I’m glad to have Adele back, but as she repeats the exact strategy she employed in 2015, I have to say that I mourn the likelihood that she’ll never have another “Rolling in the Deep” in her. Recall that the uptempo but soul-baring “Deep” was the lead single from 21, not the more stately, quintessentially Adele ballad “Someone Like You” (which I also love, for the record). “Rolling in the Deep” wasn’t just soulful, so high-quality in its vintage bones that no less than Aretha Franklin took a run at it. It was also a banger, selling millions of downloads to both teenagers and their parents, thumping out of your radio and competing effectively on the charts in the era of frothy, EDM-style megapop. For Adele, it was both definitive and, it now appears, anomalous. I’m not saying I want her to try to create another “Deep”; songs like that are born, not made. But maybe someday—the lead single to 37, or whatever the next album’s called—this still-young woman who has always been an old soul could try offering another banger and show the young’uns she came to play.

Correction, October 31, 2021: A previous version of this story misspelled Adele’s surname. It is Adkins, not Atkins.

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