Adele will never be a diva. Too nice. Too British. Hardly redoubtable. The other conditions are there, though: The big, honking, wood-smoked voice; the imposing vocal and physical presence; the glassy-eyed beauty, with that faint divot of a cleft chin; and the songs. Oh, the songs. 21, Adele's second album — named for her age at the time she began composing it — has a diva's stride and a diva's purpose. With a touch of sass and lots of grandeur, it's an often magical thing that insists on its importance. Scorned by a nasty breakup, the singer, born Adele Laurie Blue Adkins, co-wrote 10 of the 11 songs amid the aftershocks. It's a raw, flatly stated document, encased inside a slab of good old-fashioned record-label doohickery.
Break-up albums are like elbows: We all got 'em, and no one can lick 'em. They persist because they always feel more consequential, more intimate, more imbued with emotional wallop. And stacked to its gills with mercenary songwriters and producers, 21 is a personal project blessed with the good fortune of priority. In 2007, Adele signed with Richard Russell's XL Recordings and became a star in her native U.K. Less than a year later, a joint deal was brokered with Columbia, and Adele's debut, 19, was delivered to the U.S. After an initial commercial stall, the album was bolstered by a fortuitous Saturday Night Live appearance (coinciding with a cameo from Sarah Palin, speaking of aspirant divas). In 2009, Adele won the possibly curse-ridden Best New Artist Grammy (Evanescence! Arrested Development! Milli Vanilli! Esperanza Spalding!) and nonetheless persevered; 19 is now nearly platinum.
Which means 21, already a chart-topper overseas, deploys the big boys. We've got the sometimes-schlocky Diane Warren-in-training Ryan Tedder (he of Leona Lewis's "Bleeding Love" and Far*East Movement's rising "Rocketeer"), credited on two of the album's finest songs ("Turning Tables" and "Rumor Has It"). Then there's stalwart Brit rock impresario Paul "Phones" Epworth (his "Rolling in the Deep" is a standout), the emerging Fraser T. Smith, Adele's trusted collaborator Eg White, and even ye olde grande poobah of the Serious Album, Rick Rubin, awoken from his Linkin Park/Kid Rock/Chili Peppers malaise to produce four sterling, restrained variations on modern soul.
Still, it's another industry veteran who crushes it. Dan Wilson, former frontman for the so-underrated-they're-now-overrated '90s one-hitters Semisonic, wrote three songs with Adele, including the massive, clenched-chest ballad, "Someone Like You." It's a timeless sort of thing, destined to be sung in American Idol audition rounds for years; Whitney Houston would've clobbered it 20 years ago. Backed only by a piano, Adele offers acid-dipped shots: "Never mind, I'll find someone like you/I wish nothing but the best for you," goes the back-blowing chorus. Her rich and nuanced voice goes up a full register into a near-shrieked whisper as she sings, sounding like she might lose it a little. She rebounds on each verse, gathering herself and leaning back into pity and bitterness. It's a real stop-what-you're-doing song. Grey's Anatomy will definitely ruin it soon.
But for now, as with most of this album, the line here between melodrama and pathos is wafer-thin, and Adele toes it deftly. It's what separates her from her contemporaries in the mid-'00s wave of British white-girl R&B-dom. She's more powerful and empowered than Duffy, more interesting and less mechanized than Leona Lewis, shorter and smarter than Joss Stone, steelier than Lily Allen, and maybe even more talented than that wastrel of promise, Amy Winehouse. 21 probably isn't the best album Adele has in her, but it just might make her famous enough to finally be a pain in the ass.