Album Review: Selena Gomez’s ‘Rare’ Is A Pop Revelation
Selena Gomez first started tinkering away at the followup up to Revival in 2016. The superstar converted a tourbus into a mobile studio and invited along a group of songwriters and producers to record demos between concerts. Unfortunately, life got in the way and they were never released (with the exception of “Feel Me”). Since then, Selena has experimented with different sounds on a steady stream of very good singles. “Bad Liar” veered deep into alternative territory, “Fetish” flirted with R&B and “Back To You” pared brutal honesty with dance-pop.
Those elements, particularly the willingness to experiment and preference for unfiltered lyrics, laid the groundwork for Rare (out now) — a near-perfect pop album that oozes heart and purpose. Every song feels like a diary entry about a different matter of the heart. After all, SG2 is a thinly-disguised concept album about the various stages of a breakup. If you reordered the tracklist, you could plot the entire ordeal from the initial seeds of doubt right through to the euphoria that kicks in when you finally move on.
This is most clearly demonstrated by “Lose You To Love Me” and “Look At Her Now.” Landing like a karate kick to the heart, the former is an extraordinarily raw account of the aftermath of a toxic relationship. In the lyrics, Selena sings about feeling diminished and broken. She is very much still going through it, but makes a conscious decision to focus on healing. Conversely, “Look At Her Now” is a celebration. It’s a musical pat on the back for making it through to the other side — more or less in one piece.
The fact that the songs bookend the same narrative, yet sound completely different (one is a piano ballad, the other an electro-pop banger) is indicative of the album’s eclectic sound palette. The 27-year-old tells a cohesive story while bouncing from alt-pop oddities to R&B slow jams. The key here is her impeccable choice of collaborators. Instead of turning to whoever happens to be hot this week, the superstar largely keeps to her inner circle of co-creators. The result is a remarkably inward-looking album that wisely plays to her strengths.
Selena’s soft, breathy vocals are showcased to full advantage, artfully cradled by understated production. She proves once and for all that a pop star’s worth isn’t measured in octaves. Rather, it’s by the way they use their instrument to engage and move the listener. On that front, the multi-hyphenate can hold her own against anyone in pop. Care and attention to detail is evident in every aspect of Rare. Some songs click more than others, but this is refreshingly filler-free. Of the electro-pop tracks, “Dance Again” is a standout. Produced by Mattman & Robin (“Hands To Myself” and “Me & The Rhythm”), this is a sophisticated bop about getting your groove back. It also has the best use of a faux British accent since Britney Spears’ “Work Bitch.”
“Vulnerable” is equally addictive and single-worthy. The Monsters and The Strangerz and Jon Bellion have crafted an understated electro-pop gem that celebrates the superhuman feat of staying receptive to love after your heart takes a battering. “If I show you all my demons, and we dive into the deep end, would we crash and burn like every time before?” Selena ponders, before choosing hope. Instead of building even higher walls, she bravely decides to tear them down.
Mid-tempo pop is where Selena really excels and most of the Rare stays in that zone. The title track is a perfect example. A reunion with Leland (“Fetish”) and Sir Nolan (“Good For You”), “Rare” is a light and airy — yet barbed and perceptive — ditty about knowing and demanding your worth. It boasts one of Selena’s most appealing vocals and is empowering in a way that doesn’t feel forced. Every bit as good is “People You Know.” Co-written with Jason Evigan and Aaron Puckett, this is about the bewildering realization that people come and go from your life with no reason. It’s about as profound as mainstream pop gets.
While those cuts are largely concerned with processing life’s cruel blows, Rare isn’t all emo. Fan favorite “Ring” is a sassy little ditty about being a bad bitch (for want of a better term), while “Kinda Crazy” is a tongue-in-cheek tune about putting someone in check. “Fun” — another Julia Michaels co-write, so you already know it’s good — details an all-too relatable attraction to Mr. Wrong. Also of note is “Let Me Get Me,” which is a reminder to show yourself a little kindness. They are all snappy, catchy tunes that display great economy in production and huge generosity with hooks. It’s a winning combination.
That leads us to the album’s two collaborations. Featuring 6lack, “Crowded Room” is a slinky R&B anthem that evokes ’00s Cassie. On it, Selena enjoys being single and ready to mingle. It’s hopeful and fun, and probably would have been a single if the other collaboration, “A Sweeter Place,” wasn’t already being wildly embraced by fans. The Kid Cudi-assisted track is the perfect album closer in that it documents the life lessons Selena has learned and expresses hope that brighter days lie ahead.
If Revival was a snapshot of a young woman embracing her independence, Rare goes deeper still. It’s about processing the various traumas (both micro and major) that come along with being an adult. Selena 2.0 knows better than to fall for that “Same Old Love” and has learned that she needs to be good to herself before being “Good For You.” She’s a little bit older and a hell of a lot wiser. Make no mistake, Rare is the first great pop album of the 2020s.