How do you like your steak? When I was younger, my mother insisted that I always get my steak well done. Now, that I have grown up, I prefer medium-well. I’ve tried rare steak a few times and, personally, it’s absolutely awful. Funnily enough, Rare also happens to be the title of Selena Gomez’s disappointing, underwhelming, and, quite frankly, sometimes boring new album. Selena’s first album since 2015’s blockbuster Revival, Rare is a middling hodgepodge of dance-pop tracks that offer slight teases of growth and experimentation, but never fully commit. The songs are generally heartfelt, but between Selena’s robotic vocal performance and lyrics that range from vague to ridiculous (“toast in the toaster,” anyone?), Rare feels exactly as the title suggests: an undercooked 40-minute record that is ultimately unrewarding.
A couple of months ago, Selena made her grand return to the music scene with two truly excellent tracks. Unfortunately, “Lose You to Love Me” (her first #1 single) and “Look At Her Now” are among the small group of impressive and replayable tracks on Rare. The title track introduces the album with a percussion-centric production base that borrows elements of funk. It’s a solid pop confection with a catchy melody and a vocal delivery that’s somewhere between Halsey‘s poppier moments and Camila Cabello‘s more experimental turns. “Rare” soon transitions into “Dance Again,” a half-baked disco-influenced dance number. Pop songs about the freedom and power of dance are a dime a dozen, so it takes more than just a basic plucky bassline and a lazy hook to separate from the pack. “Dance Again,” isn’t horrible, but in the face of “Don’t Start Now,” Dua Lipa’s sublime disco homage, it is a bit underwhelming. Thankfully, “Look At Her Now,” pops up next to continue a particularly strong narrative thread that is slightly interrupted by “Lose You to Love Me.” While “Lose You” is easily the strongest song on the album (and, arguably, Selena’s career so far), it feels very out of place on the tracklist. This is the emotional apex of the record so it either needed to open the album or be placed directly in the middle for a more classic narrative structure. Furthermore, “Lose You” is the only true ballad on Rare and its current placement on the tracklist prematurely stunts the momentum of the album.
Rare‘s fifth track, “Ring,” an alleged Normani reject, is a spunky guitar-backed number that is slightly reminiscent of Elle King’s country-rock anthem, “Ex’s and Oh’s.” On the track, Selena proclaims her worth, tells tales of wrapping her man around her finger, and name drops Michael Jordan. Selena has always proved to be more successful and comfortable in the dance-pop lane, so the more analog production of “Ring” is a welcome change of pace. After this song, however, Rare begins to fall apart. Although “Vulnerable” is a beautifully-written track, Selena simply does not have the vocal prowess or the charisma to really sell the song. Her vocal performance is almost emotionless, she honestly sounds bored. Then there’s “People You Know,” a song that sounds so bland that it gives The Chainsmokers a run for their money. Selena sings that “what hurts the most is people can go/from people you know to people you don’t.” It’s almost painful how obliviously vapid that lyric is. On “Let Me Get Me,” yet another dance-pop number with slight Latin influences, Selena demands that the listener “takes that tired heart and turn it inside… out.” Whatever that means. “Kinda Crazy” and “Fun” are both utterly forgettable and her 6LACK collaboration, “Crowded Room,” is frustrating because although 6LACK is underutilized, there’s a lot of potential here for Selena. Thankfully, Selena is able to turn things around with the final two tracks: “Cut You Off” and the Kid Cudi-featuring “A Sweeter Place.” On the former, over blues-influenced production, Selena uses a hip-hop-esque cadence to sing about, well, cutting toxic people off. On the latter, Selena dives headfirst into Kudi’s sprawling and experimental production style for a triumphant finish; it’s one of the album’s immediate standout tracks, she sounds gorgeous.
One of the main issues with Rare is that it isn’t specific enough. Of course, we aren’t entitled to every detail of an artist’s life, but the past four years of Selena’s life have been too rich with various experiences to result in so many uninspired and basic lyrics. Another part of what holds Rare back from greatness is the lack of a clear narrative or vision. Through the lyrics, it’s clear that Selena has a story that she wants to share and that she feels is important and personal, she just isn’t sure exactly how she wants to tell or frame that story. For example, lyrically, “Lose You To Love Me” and “Cut You Off” fit well together, but they’re inexplicably on polar opposite ends of the tracklist. A more precise vision would have also helped trim the fat on the album. There was simply no need to muddle such interesting tacks like “A Sweeter Place,” “Ring” and “Cut You Off” with so many derivative dance-pop tracks. We know Selena can do dance-pop well, she did it much better on Revival than on any of the tracks on Rare. Simply put, Rare was not worth the four-year wait; this is especially irritating because there’s a good album in there somewhere, just not in its current iteration.
Key Tracks: “A Sweeter Place,” “Cut You Off,” “Lose You to Love Me”