The British chanteuse takes over an electro-laden chart landscape with her authenticity and soulful pipes

By Melissa Maerz
Updated June 24, 2011 at 04:00 AM EDT

Forget Gaga and Katy and Rihanna — so far, the year belongs to Adele. A curvy Brit with a booming voice and an unabashedly retro sound, the 23-year-old doesn’t look, talk, or sing like most multiplatinum pop stars in America. And yet her sophomore effort, 21, has become the biggest album of 2011, with more than 7 million copies sold worldwide and 2 million-plus moved in the U.S. alone since its February debut. That’s nearly a million more than Lady Gaga has managed so far with the much-hyped Born This Way. (Sure, Gaga’s has been out for only a few weeks. But then again, Adele didn’t resort to selling her album for 99 cents.)

No one’s more surprised by Adele’s success than Adele. ”It’s timing and luck,” the singer — who’s battling laryngitis and had to cancel the remainder of her U.S. tour — recently told EW. ”I think people are just bored with familiarity.”

The album topped the charts in its first week, moving a respectable 352,000 units. But what’s more impressive has been its staying power, bolstered by the strength of its lead single, ”Rolling in the Deep,” a furious love-gone-wrong anthem that’s spent eight consecutive weeks at No. 1. ”Adele has multiformat appeal like no other artist I’ve seen,” says Julie Pilat, music director at L.A.’s KIIS FM. ”Her voice is so soulful that urban radio loved it, and there was a remix of ‘Rolling in the Deep’ that was a hit at the clubs, and adult contemporary played Adele too, because she’s such a phenomenal storyteller.”

Dan Wilson, a writer-producer on 21 who’s also worked with the Dixie Chicks, has his own theory about the album’s enduring appeal. ”People love her because her words feel so real,” he says. ”It’s more like you’re listening in on someone’s inner thoughts as she goes through the ups and devastating downs of love.”

That certainly helped win over John Legend, who released a gospel-inspired cover of ”Rolling in the Deep” earlier this year. ”[We’re] very saturated in synthetic, Auto-Tuned dance music. Everything sounds like Miami club music from 10 years ago,” says the Grammy winner. ”Adele is that rare ‘singer’ on popular radio who can actually sing.”

(Additional reporting by Clark Collis)