People seem to forget just how good a pop star Selena Gomez can be. Fair enough – the media coverage around her over the past few years has largely focused on her love life and her health struggles, overshadowing her career with tabloid headlines and gossip-mill rumours. But on her third album ‘Rare’, she’s serving up a reminder of her power – no famous exes required.
This new chapter feels like Gomez is trying to begin her emancipation from that whole narrative. Sure, she addresses break-ups and breakdowns in this new batch of songs, but she also moves the story on, coming at it from a position of power and peace. There’s barely any vulnerability here (except for, fittingly, on ‘Vulnerable’), whether in her lyrics or in her cool, confident delivery of them. ‘Look At Her Now’ – a minimalist pop gem – sets out her position clearly, at least from a romantic perspective: “Took a few years to soak up the tears / But look at her now.” Later, she adds a note to anyone thinking she might not be living life on her own terms: “She knows she’ll find love / Only if she wants it.” In other words, Gomez might have been through some shit in recent years, but she’s had her recovery time and now she’s ready to get back to business.
She sounds satisfied with where she is in life. Gomez is acutely aware that her past relationships aren’t something she should pine over and has utilised her pain to learn and grow stronger. “This dancing was killing me softly / I needed to hate you to love me,” she sings on piano balled ‘Lose You To Love Me’, sounding impenetrably strong despite the song’s big emotions. The title track, meanwhile, reflects that moment in a failed partnership when you stop questioning what’s wrong with you – what you did to make them not love you – and accepting perhaps that the other person didn’t appreciate all your attributes. “Why don’t you recognise I’m so rare?” She asks at the start of the chorus, but ends it on a much more confident note: “I know that I’m special / And I’ll bet there’s somebody else out there / To tell me I’m rare.”
If you came to ‘Rare’ hoping for break-up dramatics, then you’ve come to the wrong place. She says as much on album highlight ‘Dance Again’, half-chanting “I kickstart the rhythm / All the drama’s in remission” over fuzzy synths and a walloping disco bassline. ‘Rare’ is that most powerful and liberating of things – the sound of a woman becoming comfortable both on her own and in her own company. That turning point is often portrayed in pop music with euphoric bangers loaded with messages about empowerment. But Gomez’s work here is far more understated – she might be telling the world that she’s free, but, if anything, her approach makes her feel even more secure in herself. She doesn’t need to be loud about it; she’s just happy to share.
There are moments of pure joy and pop brilliance here. ‘Let Me Get Me’ is one of the album’s most dancefloor-ready tracks, Gomez “danc[ing] for therapy, all my babies and me”, her delivery breathy and hurried, as if she recorded it in the middle of a big night out at the club. When she adds, seconds later, “No self-sabotage, no letting my thoughts run / Me and the spiral are done”, you can sense a burden being lifted from her shoulders. ‘Fun’ sounds like a brighter take on her superlative 2017 single ‘Bad Liar’, referencing her health problems while she asks someone if they can keep it casual. “We could overcrowd each other’s spaces / You get me higher than my medication,” she chirrups.
But just as there is plenty of gold on ‘Rare’, there is also plenty of filler – usually found when the songs sound like they could be sung by any number of current pop stars. The Latin guitar strum of ‘Ring’ is Camila Cabello‘s ‘Havana’-lite – right down to a very similar “ooh na na”. ‘Crowded Room’, a collaboration with Atlantan rapper and singer 6lack, sounds like any other bland radio-friendly bit of emotional pop, while ‘People You Know’ is pleasant enough but not particularly memorable.
Blips aside, ‘Rare’ is a beautifully confident return from one of pop’s most underrated stars, and a quietly defiant wrestling back of the narrative surrounding her.
- Release date: January 10, 2019
- Label: Interscope