In January, Adele made one of the most important decisions of her career: While recovering from surgery to remove a polyp from her vocal cords, she agreed to perform her biggest hit, "Rolling in the Deep," during the Grammy Awards. Even for the brightest new star the music business has produced in years, the move paid off in a major way: Following the death of Whitney Houston, 40 million people tuned in to the February 12th broadcast, the show's largest audience since 1984. Adele's bravura performance and charmingly plain-spoken speeches ("I've got a bit o' snot!") stole the show, leading to a record-breaking 730,000 fans buying her smash album, 21, the following week. "The Whitney thing definitely added far more poignancy to the whole evening, but it was a dream come true for us," says her manager, Jonathan Dickins. "Adele's natural, but it was nervous for her. It takes guts and a certain character to go back in after not singing publicly for five months, and come back for the first time and do the Grammys."
Until a few weeks ago, Adele planned to follow up her breakthrough year by doing, well, pretty much nothing. Last fall she canceled an arena tour due to her vocal injury. Up through the Grammys, she basically disappeared, recently telling Vogue she planned "a four- or five-year" break – spending the time with her new boyfriend in the country home she rented in West Sussex, England, and working on new songs.
That was frustrating news for fans – and concert promoters, who say the singer could pull in millions of dollars per show. "She'll sell every ticket, every show, worldwide," says Andy Cirzan, vice president of concerts for Chicago's Jam Productions. "I have a standing offer for multiple nights here at the United Center."
But now her manager tells Rolling Stone that a 2012 tour is still on the table, depending on Adele's health. "She's loved the touring she's done in the past," says Dickins, who was planning to talk to Adele about her post- Grammy plans at press time. "At the same time, we want to make sure we can get through it properly." Adds Dr. Steven Zeitels, the Harvard University specialist who conducted her surgery in November, "From everything I see thus far, she has a choice of what to do. Her vocal cords aren't going to get in the way."
While Adele sounded healthy on the Grammys, Dickins warns that doesn't mean she's automatically ready to tour. "That's one song, performed for three minutes 40 seconds, once," he says. "It's not an hour and a half, four times a week. It's a big difference. We still have to be mindful of nursing that voice back to full fitness."
In an era when records almost never sell more than 700,000 copies in a given week – the last was Lil Wayne's Tha Carter IV – and even the biggest stars, from Lady Gaga to Coldplay, tend to quickly drop out of the Top 40, Adele's continued blockbuster sales are especially remarkable. In the year since 21 first hit shelves, the LP has moved more than 7.3 million copies in the U.S., spun off three Number One singles, and won the singer six Grammys, including Song, Record and Album of the Year. "We were expecting some kind of surge, but this is just unreal," says Ish Cuebas, vice president of music merchandising for record chain Trans World Entertainment.
How did she do it? One major explanation is that her music was able to cross over to basically every radio format. "The industry would be a lot better off if we found 10 more artists like her, who had that ability to connect with fans," says Scott Greer, senior vice president for Sony-owned Columbia Records, whose staff planned a yearlong marketing campaign that peaked with the Grammys.
Her label plans to roll out one more single from 21: "Rumour Has It." After that? "She's free to do whatever moves her," says Rick Rubin, who produced five songs on 21. "The reason she's good is she only does what moves her. Which I think ensures whatever she chooses to do next will be really, really good."
This story is from the March 15, 2012 issue of Rolling Stone.