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One Good Thing: The dark pop pleasures of Selena Gomez’s Rare

This excellent album got lost in the 2020 chaos. Now is the perfect time to listen.

The cover of Selena Gomez’s album Rare Interscope Records/illustration by Amanda Northrop, Vox
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

Back in January — remember January? — Selena Gomez’s Rare came out to warm reviews that said the pop star’s third solo studio album was her best effort to date, full of catchy, alluring songs that were equally suited to dancing at a club or hanging out at home.

Then a bunch of other stuff happened in 2020, and Rare ended up getting a bit lost in the shuffle, despite launching at No. 1 on the Billboard sales charts and scoring a No. 1 hit single in the bruised torch song “Lose You to Love Me.” A deluxe version of the album with several additional songs launched in early April, and one of the original album’s tracks (“Dance Again”) had been slated to appear in commercials promoting the 2020 NCAA basketball tournament. But the tournament had been canceled before the deluxe version dropped, and most people had other things on their minds by the time it arrived.

Rare didn’t disappear entirely — again, it featured a No. 1 single — but it hasn’t had the impact of the year’s other major releases from pop stars of the moment, like Taylor Swift’s Folklore or Ariana Grande’s Positions.

Nonetheless, those critics who praised the album in January were right. Rare is a terrifically compelling pop album, and its biggest strength, to my mind, is the way it plays as well at home as it does in the car or would at the club, if people were going to clubs right now. And considering how thoroughly Rare centers on songs about self-acceptance or about yearning for someone you simply cannot be with at the moment, it’s proved to be an uncannily good album for quarantine.

Gomez has always crafted pop music with a slightly darker tinge than many of her contemporaries. Her ballads always bear a desperation that other pop stars might not embrace as nakedly as she does, and her more danceable hits are often about, like, how much she wishes she could stop thinking about having sex with somebody BUT SHE JUST CAN’T. There’s a mildly obsessive quality to all of her work. If most of Taylor Swift’s songs reach a point of clarity at the end, most of Gomez’s songs swirl further down the spiral.

What sets Rare apart is the way that daylight occasionally peeks through the darkness. The song “Look at Her Now” has drawn attention for the fact that it’s supposedly about Gomez’s relationship with her ex-boyfriend, Justin Bieber, and at least superficially, it really is about what it’s like to go through a breakup and then need some time to pull yourself together. But the song also suggests that picking through the aftermath of this particular relationship took the singer years, and many of the lyrics nod toward something closer to depression than missing a former lover. Rare is full of songs like that, which are about figuring out a way to escape the spiral somehow.

“Lose You to Love Me” is also in this vein. Not only is it the album’s biggest hit, but it’s Gomez’s first ever No. 1 single. It’s another song that explores the wilderness left behind after a long relationship but with a soaring chorus that suggests love is only possible with the potential of pain. That idea is not a new one in pop music, but I like the way Gomez turns it inward to declare that loving yourself is only possible if you accept that living authentically will involve a fair share of pain. (I also think the line “rose-colored glasses all distorted,” which occurs early in the song, is a clever turn of phrase.)

Lyrically, the album is a bit weak here and there, with some bland rhymes. “Kinda Crazy” rhymes “crazy” with “baby,” “shady,” and “lately,” which comes so close to working that it ends up being a little irritating for just falling short of the mark. And if you play the whole thing straight through, the album can feel a little same-y in terms of tempo and production, especially if you’re listening to the deluxe edition (so many faux handclaps!). Due to that sameness, I recommend the original album, with perhaps only “Boyfriend” from the deluxe edition added in for your streaming pleasure.

But despite Rare’s flaws, whenever Spotify’s algorithm has included one of its songs in my daily mixes, I’ve found myself turning up the volume just a little. Rare really is the best album Gomez has made, both for the consistent quality of its songwriting and for its surprising thematic cohesiveness. It is a pop album for the end of fall, for sitting on the beach in the autumn chill at 5 am, tugging your sweater more tightly around you as you watch for the first glimmers of the sun rising in the east.

Rare is available on all major music streaming platforms. For more recommendations from the world of culture, check out the One Good Thing archives.

Correction: The original version of this article incorrectly said the name of “Dance Again” was “Dance With Me.”