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It is, perhaps, one of the greatest understatements in modern pop music to say that Selena Gomez’s career has been impacted by Justin Bieber. Not to say that she owes him her career, or that her affiliation with him contributed to her success — listening to some of her most resonant and successful songs, it’s actually easier to argue the opposite — but nevertheless, their romantic relationship has been a part of her identity from adolescence all the way through her adulthood.
At 27, Gomez has finally shed her teeny-bopper persona, one that followed her from her days as a child star. Considering she first appeared on the quintessential children’s show, Barney, at the age of 10, and then starred on the Disney Channel hit series, Wizards Of Waverly Place, for five years, it’s no wonder it took Selena until her late twenties to fully embrace her role as a masterful adult pop star.
Her discography includes a three-album stint as Selena Gomez & the Scene, as part of an early label deal with Hollywood Records, a subsidiary of Disney. While signed to Hollywood Records, she also released her solo debut Stars Dance in 2013, and a final compilation album in 2014, For You, that notably contained one of the most respected — and adult — songs she’d written up to that point: “The Heart Wants What It Wants.” For those not avidly following the TMZ headlines, or watching the play-by-play drama unfold on social media, this was the first real look at how Selena’s on again/off again relationship with Justin might be impacting her.
The song was dark, and it was sad, but also, it was a hit — it was riveting. So, instead of being the first and last of its kind, the Selena kiss-off hit became a recurring trope, each one loaded with the idea that they addressed not just any random ex-boyfriend, but Justin Bieber himself, giving each of these song’s lyrics a little extra touch of frisson. There was “Same Old Love” on her 2015 album Revival, which functioned as more of a de facto debut as her first release for Interscope. A year later, she guested on Charlie Puth’s aching breakup hit “We Don’t Talk Anymore,” singing the second verse that imagines an ex in someone else’s arms.
Then in 2017, an EDM hit with Kygo, “It Ain’t Me,” ushered an invocation of Bob Dylan’s iconic dismissal into the fold. Even as recently as 2018, her contribution to 13 Reasons Why soundtrack, “Back To You,” suggested leaving everything for an old relationship. Of course, at the same time, Selena also released obsessive love songs, songs with themes of recovery and healing, and plenty of other subject matter; but few of those caught on with the same fire that her breakup songs did. Of her eight top ten hits, five of those are breakup songs.
With all this emotional setup already embedded in Gomez’s discography, the first album she released after Justin Bieber’s whirlwind, sorta-surprise marriage to Hailey Bieber in late 2018 was highly anticipated. And, to continue the trend of fans’ evident fascination with Selena’s subtweet-y breakup songs about Justin, her first single off the album, “Lose You To Love Me,” became her first No. 1 hit when it dropped late last year. That early single, paired with another self-love-infused dancefloor banger, “Look At Her Now,” suggested that Rare would be a deep dive into Selena’s emotional state now that Justin was officially off the market.
And, since it has been the downer, darker songs that have captured the public’s imagination when it comes to Selena’s thoughts on Justin, it’s a welcome surprise, then, that Rare is so decisively upbeat. While it’s definitely an album grappling with the end of a romantic relationship, it’s hard to remember the last time a breakup album was this… dancey? “Look At Her Now” is much more an indication of where Rare was going than “Lose You To Love Me,” with the narrative fixed firmly on “love me” over “lose you.”
The title-track kicks off the album with a self-realization about being in unappreciated in a relationship, but with a buoyant, almost joyous air of recognition. Followed up immediately by “Dance Again,” a straightforward bop about emerging from sorrow to dance that sh*t out, it’s an easy companion to Revival’s “Me & My Girls,” and later on “Let Me Get Me” also falls into this same vibe. “Ring” is a saucy single-girl-anthem that plays on the visual of this oh-so-important piece of jewelry, while making a pun of letting multiple calls from desperate suitors go unanswered. (Generally, I try to avoid words like “saucy” in writing about female pop, because there’s an implication of veiled sexuality that feels kind of 1950s, but that’s exactly the line Selena tries to toe, due to religious background, so it feels fitting here.)
On “People You Know,” she grapples with the gut-wrenching feeling of watching someone who used to be a close friend or lover turn into a stranger, and on “Vulnerable,” she vows to remain soft, tender, and open to love instead of letting go completely, resulting in the most hopeful song on the record. But by the penultimate track “Cut You Off” — a jazzy, piano-driven slow-burner that, again, uses a more obvious visual like a haircut to stand-in for cutting off a toxic person — the lighthearted, bubbly feeling is back in full force: “Emotionally messing with my health / How could I confuse that sh*t for love?” (Short answer, the cycle began when you were about seventeen.) On songs like this one, she is nothing short of dazzling, especially because it offers a refreshingly healed perspective.
A few scattered tracks discuss moving on or more casual relationships, like “Kinda Crazy” and “Fun,” or that instant attraction vibe, on “Crowded Room” with 6lack, but these don’t feel as tonally relevant as the rest of the songs. And honestly, the guest verses from both 6lack — and Kid Cudi, on the album closer “Sweeter Place” — are pretty lackluster. It would’ve been way more interesting to hear Selena collaborate with her other famous exes like The Weeknd or Nick Jonas, or any other musician she has a personal relationship with, like Taylor Swift. There’s no connection to either of those rappers and Gomez, making them feel like they’re filling some sort of “hip-hop quota” that has no bearing on the rest of the record.
Aside from that small quibble, Rare is definitely the new stand-out album in Selena’s discography — and the first great pop album of 2020. Furthermore, there’s not a single explicit reference to Justin or Hailey, no pettiness and no name-dropping, just a focus on forward movement and a lot of regret. If anyone needs a blueprint for making a breakup album that still has plenty to say without taking it to a retaliatory level, Selena may have just provided that. If this is the final chapter on Selena and Justin, it’s a great, mature conclusion. Rare isn’t fiery or angry or dramatic, instead moving at a slow burn, gradually revealing its brilliance in layers. Still, it will be fascinating to see what Selena sings about next, and whether Rare really signals the end of an era for her and Justin or not.
Rare is out now via Interscope. Get it here.