Album Review: Selena Gomez - Rare

I hesitate to say that Rare, the latest effort from Selena Gomez (her third ‘solo’ album and sixth overall if you count her material billed as Selena Gomez and The Scene) is a ‘difficult’ album; it’s pop music—it shouldn’t be difficult. But it’s frustrating. It’s a frustrating album, from beginning to end, that is capable of both great things, and cringeworthy, cloying things.

It is, however, that dichotomy, that keeps you listening.

Her first record in almost five years, Rare is an album, whether intentional on the part of Gomez or not, full of contrasts; and it’s an album that almost goes where, deep down, I think it wants to go. But in the end, maybe it, as well as Gomez, were just not ready to actually get to those places, and really get into those themes—instead, as a consolation prize, the record just skims the surface, while attempting to keep things moderately light.

It is, after all, pop music. It shouldn’t be difficult, or dark.

But it can be; it could be.


Who, exactly, is Selena Gomez—who was she, who is she now, and who, or what, does she aspire to be?

For a number of years, I didn’t really understand who Selena Gomez was; just another young woman entering the pop market place, with CDs I would see on the ‘New Release’ rack at the local Target. I mean, she is still that woman—not as young as she once was, but Rare, because Target is, like, the last bastion of where middle America goes to purchase physical music, is available in a Target ‘exclusive’ edition with bonus material and alternate cover art.

Once a child actor, alongside her onetime (and possibly still) close friend (and also a pop star, but with a tumultuous history) Demi Lovato, after they both did stints on “Barney and Friends,” Gomez rose to popularity through the “Wizards of Waverly Place” on the Disney Channel, as well as starring in other family oriented fare, up until taking on an ‘adult’ role in the 2012 film Spring Breakers. She turned her attention to music with her group The Scene in 2009, but ended the band in 2012 to focus on a solo career. 

While Lovato publicly struggled with addiction and mental health issues, Gomez, really, outside of her acting career and her musical canon, has hasn’t made gossipy attention grabbing headlines; she has been involved in a few high profile relationships—an early romance with Nick Jonas, a long, on again, off again courtship with Justin Bieber, and a short, ill-fated time spent with Abel Tesfaye, a.k.a The Weeknd. 

There is speculation that the latter two of that list inspired some of the material on Rare. 

Who Gomez is now, as a budding pop superstar, and what she aspires to be, are questions with an almost identical answer. You can feel that—that ‘on the cusp of something greater than’ throughout Rare, but the album’s blatant, tragic flaw, is that she never quite manages to push herself to where it needs to be, in order to be that kind of pop record. 

On the surface, at times, Rare is about Gomez’s self empowerment as a young woman who has been a part of tempestuous relationships, and wants to be appreciated. “I’m so rare,” she sings, coyly in the album’s opening, titular track. “I know that I’m somebody special.” 

But, because it’s an album full of contrasts, Gomez juxtaposes that strength, or assurance—she also boasts it in one of the album’s earliest singles, “Look at Her Now”—with fragile confessions, like “I would tell you all my secrets, wrap your arms around my weakness…I’ll stay vulnerable,” she sings on the aptly titled “Vulnerable.”

There is also a third kind of contrast shoehorned into Rare’s aesthetic, and it’s when Gomez taps into this energy that the album takes its worst turns—it’s a kind of self-aware, boastful, sensual confidence appearing in songs like “Ring,” or “Fun” that makes them, as well as a few of others, an absolute chore to sit through.

I’m breakin’ hearts like a heart attack—got him right where the carats at,” she coos on the insipid “Ring.” “Wrapped ‘round my finger like a ring/They just like puppets on a string….they doin’ way too much, so I’ll just let it ring.”

Or, on “Fun”—“I try not to bother, not to bother you, but my kind of trouble likes your trouble too….you may not be the one, but you look like fun.”

The real struggle with these songs is that lyrically, they induce enormous cringes; thematically, they are wildly problematic; but musically, they are among the album’s most infectious in terms of pop production and arranging. And it’s that fact that makes them, unfortunately, among the most memorable, even though you don’t want them to be. 

“Ring,” musically, slinks along with a sultry swagger, akin to 2009-era Adele, or even the ‘poorman’s Adele,” Duffy (remember her?); while “Fun” works within a skeletal space, powered by handclaps and funk-inspired guitar undertones.

Rare’s most problematic moment, though, is also one of those infectious, slinking tracks—arriving within the album’s final third is “Crazy,” which, aside from using ableist language over and over again, paints a troubling picture in its refrain—“I think you’re kind of crazy, and not the good kind baby,” she sings, before adding, “‘Cause you’re actin’ super shady.”

Then, in the song’s second verse, “Now you’re treatin’ me like I’m insane—you’re insane.”


As with so many other albums of this nature that I have listened to in the past few years, even when there are problematic or cringe worthy moments, or songs that aren’t awful, but aren’t incredible, and more or less serve as filler, there are both two songs that do their best to rise above all of the album’s problems; and, there are two more songs that are, hands down, slices of incredible pop music.

As the standard edition of Rare winds itself down, there’s something strangely familiar when you hear “Cut You Off.” Or, at least, there was for me, anyway—but maybe I spent too much of 2019 with my head buried deep into albums like Lover or Norman Fucking Rockwell, or even Carly Rae Jepsen’s Dedicated. Maybe, after a certain point, all the pop tropes have been played, and you begin to hear elements of one artist, or musical ideas that seem like they are from one artist, coming through in another.

“Cut You Off” is one of Rare’s more memorable moments, though far from its finest. Arriving with a rollicking bass line, the song’s refrain swirls together with Gomez’s processed vocals and warm, sweeping synthesizers. The song’s steady, pointed rhythm provides an opportunity for Gomez to focus on the precision of her vocal delivery, as she allows her words to cascade down with each beat—“And I might as well just tell you that I’m drunk, and the truth is that I think I’ve had enough,” she kind of speak sings. “Professionally messin’ with my trust—how could I confuse that shit for love?

The aforementioned familiar sound arrives in the song’s refrain. There’s a lot of wordless singing of ‘ooh ooh ooh’-ing that occurs, and there’s something about the way it’s processed (Gomez’ voice is also heavily impacted by Auto-Tune during the song’s verses, which is distracting), giving it some kind of borderline ethereal quality that is, just ever so slightly reminiscent of the ending to the titular track on Lana Del Ray’s Norman Fucking Rockwell; and overall, the way the song lopes along on the strength of the thick bass line, and the way Gomez glides between singing and talk-singing, that reminds me a little of some moments from Taylor Swift’s Lover. 

Rare’s closing track, “A Sweeter Place,” is another memorable but far from finest moments. Enormous and dramatic, it does feature the questionable lyric in its refrain: “Red lips, French kiss all my worries away,” as well as the slightly less questionable, but no less dramatic in its execution, “Holdin’ hands with the darkness and knowing my heart is allowed.” 

It also features additional contributions from the polarizing and often maligned rapper and singer, Kid Cudi (Scott Mescudi), who brings his trademarked Auto-Tuned, wordless singing to the song’s opening moments, as well as providing the second verse. It’s an uneven song, yes, and in the end, many songs on Rare are, but because of the sheer scope of “A Sweeter Place” in the way it arrives, the two really go out of their way to sell it, and it kind of works, especially as one big, final, dramatic statement on the standard edition of the album.


Tucked in near the album’s final third is one of the album’s pleasant, effective surprises—one of Rare’s finest moments. “Crowded Room” works because its sentimental, yes, but it is also in the song’s somewhat reserved, or restrained, execution and production. Sliding in with rhythm of simple hand claps, you half expect to hear the production tag of  Mustard on the beat, ho,” before Gomez begins singing. (That doesn’t happen, in case you were wondering.)

What does happen, though, as she sings “Baby it’s just me and you, just us two, even in a crowded room,” is that the song quickly develops a powerful, sultry aesthetic that isn’t really found anywhere else on the album—perhaps it’s because it moves at a slower, slinkier tempo; perhaps its the simple keyboard accompaniment that follows her vocals; or maybe it’s the sentiment of the song; maybe it’s the hypnotic way she does sing “Baby it’s just me and you”—maybe it’s all of those elements and more that make it what it is, but you cannot help getting pulled into the song by the time Gomez is wrapping up the first verse and heading into the refrain: “I was afraid but you made it safe,” she sings. “I guess that is our combination—said you feel lost, well, so do I…so won’t you call me in the morning? I think that you should call me in the morning if you feel the same…

Issued as the album’s first official single, back in October, before Rare, as an album, had even been announced, the dramatic, gigantic, and emotional “Lose You to Love Me,” is, without a doubt, the finest, most captivating moment on the record. 

As far as contemporary pop ballads go, rarely do you hear something released as an album’s lead single, that is this powerful and cathartic—the closest thing I can compare it to is the feeling I got the first time I heard “Praying” by Ke$ha. Based around enormous piano chords, with slight flutterings of electronic glitches underneath, Gomez’s voice comes tumbling in, and she wears her heart proudly on her sleeve throughout—“You promised the world and I fell for it,” she begins, and even when the lyrics dip into heavy handed cliche, it still works—“Set fires to my forest—and you let it burn/Sang off-key in my chorus—‘cause it wasn’t yours.”

The song, if you couldn’t tell by its name, or its few opening lyrics, is about self-empowerment that comes from after a relationship has ended, or, maybe better said, the true sense of self you have to eventually find—as well as the confusion that comes when that relationship has ended, and all of those emotions you have to grapple. “I needed to lose you to find me,” Gomez sings, but then her sentiments begin to change; “I needed to hate you to find me,” she says, which is juxtaposed against the song’s titular phrase: “I needed to lose you to love me.”

I stop short of saying it’s a devastating moment of both honesty for both Gomez, for the listener, and for the album, but it comes pretty fucking close; it is the kind of thing that holds a mirror up to your own past heartbreaks, and, if you catch it at the right time, “Lose You to Love Me” can knock the wind right out of you. 


What is the shelf life of pop music? Do we remember the album as a whole, or do we remember just bits and pieces of it as time passes? Do I remember any other songs off of Katy Perry's 2013 effort Prism, aside from “Roar,” the first song released off of it, and, at the time, one of my favorite songs of the year? 

Do I remember more than just one or two songs off of Bangerz, the Miley Cyrus album released that same year? Yes—including “Maybe You’re Right,” which, much like “Roar,” was a song I was so impressed with, that it too was one of my favorites of the year.

Will I remember Rare for songs other than its two finest moments, and a few other bits and pieces? Uncertain at this time—releasing an album like this, from a borderline marquee name, in the first month of the year, is a dangerous move in terms of memorability. 

What is the shelf life of pop music? What is the ‘sell by’ date on an album like Rare? Is it the kind of thing that will last beyond 2020, or is it the kind of thing that I will have little, if any, recollection of, 10 or 11 months from now?

But, really, do we remember other things—movies, books, et. al? 

There is the album that Rare wants to be, and there is the album that Rare winds up being, and it is okay to just enjoy it for what it is—for all of its flaws, and all of its fleeting moments of pure pop perfection.

Rare is out now as a digital album and CD via Interscope; a vinyl edition arrives in late February.