Selena Gomez Emerges Confident yet Vulnerable on ‘Rare’

Selena Gomez has been a siren for such wayward pop idols as Justin Beiber, the Weeknd, and Nick Jonas, inspiring volumes of whining from a motley crew of voices. After three successful albums with her backing band, the Scene, she made her solo debut with the EDM-heavy “Stars Dance” in 2013, and took a more measured pop direction on the followup, 2015’s “Revival.” Her long-awaited return is marked by a new poise and confidence. The latest album, “Rare,” finds Gomez firmly turning down former flames, and insisting on her own worth, without being afraid to show vulnerability. She shuttles back and forth between the same few themes, exploring them with different tones and textures, in a set of snappy pop songs that break little new ground, but should satisfy fans overall.

The title track begins with a minimal bassline and tin can drums, with the open space giving the sense of a clean slate. Gomez settles effortlessly into a groove, and sings frivolously with new conviction, breaking free, and asserting her value. For a self-empowerment anthem, it’s not all that anthemic, but understated, short and pointed. At any rate, it functions as a succinct statement of intent. “Dance Again” follows naturally, with the newfound composure finding its way to the dancefloor with an insistent electropop backbone and an infectious, simple singalong. Gomez takes charge, declaring, “I kickstart the rhythm… I don’t need permission.”

“Look At Her Now” stands out with a “mm-mm-mm” chorus, pitched as if to cooly express a rejection. Snippets enter around this utterance, and build into a festive beatboxed ditty. Gomez reflects upon troubled relationships, but promptly rebounds, and gleefully pronounces the titular line. Single “Lose You to Love Me” looks again to past romances, and Gomez dwells longer here on the memories, but ultimately concludes that all was for the best. It’s a sappy, readymade tearjerker of a ballad, and an effective foil to the preceding number. 

After all this dramatic bellowing, Gomez suddenly picks up her pace and changes her tune with “Ring,” an especially catchy song, with celebratory Latin percussion complementing the gusto with which Gomez flirtatiously boasts about having her special someone under her thumb, or more specifically, “round my finger like a ring.” Behind all this bluster, however, there’s still a soft side, which comes out in “Vulnerable,” an ode to sensitivity, in which Gomez reasons, “I would tell you all my secrets, wrap your arms around my weakness / If the only other option is letting go.” Gomez sounds stellar in all her harmonies and adlibs. There are vaguely ‘80s stylings, and the buildup to the chorus that brings a cathartic release. 

Coming to terms with troubles, and moving on is a recurrent theme, and Gomez revisits the lessons of “Lose You to Love Me” in “People You Know,” consoling herself in the reminder that “People can go / From people you know / To people you don’t.” The string of lines makes for a catchy chorus, and colorful percussion makes for a buoyant beat that carries the song. This is even more the case on “Let Me Get Me,” a counterpart to “Dance Again,” with Gomez deriving all her verve from a skeletal rhythm, and bleating away with abandon in memorable hooks, amid haunting, pitch-shifted vocals. Then, it’s back to the sentiments of “Vulnerable,” as Gomez gets gushy again on “Crowded Room.” In an album full of platitudes, this song features a particularly sweet lyric, “Even in a crowded room / Baby it’s just me and you.” Rapper 6lack drops a verse at the end, half-singing and half-rapping, condensing plenty of personality into just a few bars.

On the instantly catchy “Kinda Crazy,” Gomez dons a playful voice, and reminds us that she’s having none of it, albeit this time with a teasing tone, and a lighthearted air. “Fun” is lighter yet, funky and propulsive. Having pondered her trauma on “Vulnerable,” and embraced her desires on “Crowded Room,” Gomez now nonchalantly shrugs, “You look like fun.” One song later, on “Cut You Off,” she’s still chirpily singing, but has strengthened her resolve, and now repeats the tunt of the refrain with the same carefree giddiness she displayed on “Look At  Her Now.” Still, she stays optimistic, ending with “A Sweeter Place,” featuring a verse from Kid Cudi, his distinctive drawl serving as a dynamic counterpart to Gomez’s effervescent vocal. Melodies built from sliced vocal samples carry the sentiment home, and fading synths draw the album to a close.

“Rare” is a cohesive album written from a specific mentality. It’s a record about resilience, self-validation, and progress. Gomez manages to stay firm and resolute, while still showing vulnerability, and holding on to hope. All of the songs are catchy, but none are absolute bangers. Five years after Gomez’s last record, “Rare” plays it safe, sticking to narrow pop confines, with the lyrics and musical stylings giving Gomez a fresh voice, but without much characteristic flair to set her apart. Still, she’s in top form, doing what she does, and singing like she means it. 

Rare” is available Jan. 10 on Apple Music.