In spite of, or maybe partly because of, her obvious ambivalence toward pop stardom and her triumphal backstory, Gomez inspires a fierce combination of affection and worry and protectiveness not seen since the turbulent heyday of fellow child performer-turned-pop star Britney Spears.
Like Spears, she devoted many years to a famous Justin who was unworthy of her and publicly contended with mental and physical health issues (Gomez had a kidney transplant after being diagnosed with lupus and sought help for her depression and anxiety at an inpatient mental health facility).
In November, Gomez landed her first No. 1 hit, “Lose You to Love Me,” a skyscraping ballad about letting go of a toxic relationship to save yourself. It’s not just a great song, it’s also a nifty summation of most of what Gomez has been singing about for years. It’s a tl;dr of her entire career. After years of skillfully made but forgettable pop, “Lose You” feels consequential and adult, the midcareer reset Britney never got.
It’s also the best thing on “Rare,” a modest, likable collection of come-ons, kiss-offs and dance floor self-affirmations. “Lose You” excepted, these aren’t dig-deep internal excavations. “Rare” is more interested in new beginnings than in breakups and places a premium on self-love. The disco-inspired “Dance Again” and the understated “Let Me Get Me” (“No self-sabotage/No letting my thoughts run/Me and the spiral are done”) are the #selfcare Instagram tag in musical form.
Though it’s vague enough to allow the listener to see themselves in it, “Rare” often toys with tabloid perceptions of Gomez’s relationships. “Look at Her Now” details a fast-burning romance (“Shiny till it wasn’t/Feels good till it doesn’t”) with a troubled bad boy (“Fast nights that got him,” sings Gomez, sounding sympathetic. “That new life was his problem”). The slinky, somewhat lesser “Cut You Off” (“Emotionally messin’ with my health/How could I confuse that s--- for love?”) examines the resulting wreckage.
“Rare” offers no bangers, but no dead weight, either. It places more emphasis on flyweight dance pop than on the arguably more adventurous, EDM-influenced tracks that have populated Gomez’s catalogue. Two of her biggest and best recent electronic collaborations, with Marshmello (“Wolves”) and Kygo (“It Ain’t Me”) are relegated to bonus tracks.
Gomez has the lead songwriting credit on every song, part of a vast scaffolding that undergirds “Rare.” Among the dozens of collaborators are several from her last album, “Revival,” including the songwriting team of Julia Michaels and Justin Tranter, who co-wrote the twin standout tracks here, “Lose You” and “Look at Her Now” (they also co-wrote Bieber’s career-defining “Sorry”).
Gomez doesn’t entirely inhabit this album, but she feels more present and more central to its narrative than she has on any of her other adult-era releases. “I can’t believe I can be loud,” she sings, not loudly, on the album closer “A Sweeter Place,” an echo-y, torpid track that collaborator Kid Cudi, whom no one would ever call lively, can’t help.
“Rare,” like any superstar pop album, is at least partly fan fiction. “Young woman finds self-acceptance, leaves her troubles on the dance floor” is necessarily an exercise in wish fulfillment, but it still feels like it’s true, or one day could be. Unlike too many female pop singers who came before her, Gomez might yet get the chance to write her own ending.