Adele Adkins' retro-soul debut, 19, was striking less for her songs than for that voice: a voluptuous, slightly parched alto that swooped and fluttered like a Dusty Springfield student trying to upstage her teacher, or at least update the rules. Now that she's legal — 21 refers to her age when she wrote these songs — Adele has toughened her tone, trimmed the jazz frippery and sounds ready for a pub fight. "Go ahead and sell me out/And I'll lay your shit bare," she promises an ex-lover on "Rolling in the Deep," a soul burner with hand claps and a kick drum whumping like a fist on a sandbag. (The new approach seems to be working: 21 has already topped the charts in eight countries.)
The A-list hitmakers are here: Paul Epworth (Kate Nash, Cee Lo Green), Ryan Tedder (Beyoncé, Kelly Clarkson), Dan Wilson (Dixie Chicks), Fraser T. Smith (Taio Cruz). Adele has real chemistry with Epworth; check his old-school/new-school magic act on the R&B co-write "He Won't Go," which gets some lean production from Rick Rubin. She clicks less with Wilson, whose power ballads (excepting the gospel-powered "One and Only") try too hard. The woman is mutable, sometimes to a fault: Her cover of the Cure's "Lovesong" is a nice idea lost in bossa nova fluff. But when the grooves are fierce, Adele gives as good as she gets.
Listen to "Rolling in the Deep":