The Week In Pop

Selena Gomez’s Rare Was Worth The Wait

Rare is an accurate title for a Selena Gomez album. Gomez, the former Disney Channel teen actress turned pop superstar and tabloid fixation, is part of the class of big-time pop singers who haven’t released a full-length project since the middle of last decade — a group that includes Adele, Rihanna, and her former boyfriends Justin Bieber and the Weeknd. Her most recent collection, the slinky career highlight Revival, dropped in October 2015. (Her first for Interscope after parting ways with the teeny-bopping Hollywood Records, Gomez considers it her proper debut album, 2013’s Stars Dance and a trio of Selena Gomez & The Scene albums be damned.)

Revival completed Gomez’s transition into full-fledged adult pop stardom, sent three songs to the top 10, and helped steer mainstream pop away from an aggressive EDM influence toward a softer, smaller, more graceful palette of sounds. Since then, she’s remained a consistent presence at Top 40 radio thanks to a steady stream of singles, some of them hits. Yet despite suggesting the so-called #SG2 was “very close” in 2016, it has not materialized until now. As this Billboard career overview points out, some of that probably had to do with “Bad Liar” and “Fetish” fizzling commercially in 2017, but that’s not the only way the interim since Revival has been rocky.

If you follow celebrity news blogs, you are probably familiar with the various twists and turns. Romantically, there were a handful of presumed reunions with Bieber (before he settled down with Hailey Baldwin) and an entanglement with the Weeknd that lasted most of 2017. (Their breakup supposedly inspired much of his EP-length 2018 project My Dear Melancholy.) The relational drama coincided with some intense health struggles. As a consequence of her battle with lupus, she famously received a kidney transplant from her friend in 2017, and further complications from the disease led her to check herself into a mental health treatment facility for a few weeks in late 2018.

All that tumult was the implied context for “Lose You To Love Me,” the titanic melodrama that became Gomez’s first #1 hit when it debuted atop the Billboard Hot 100 two months ago. “I needed to hate you to love me,” Gomez sings as grandiose balladry swells around her. “I needed to lose you to love me.” Paired with a black-and-white music video featuring Gomez emoting in vivid closeup, it leveraged her life story, popular ideas about self-care, and a promotional tie-in with Apple into the most surefire hit of her career. It also helped that it’s a good song, one that expertly transplants the spacious minimalism that has defined Gomez’s best work into the the power-ballad format.

Gomez wrote “Lose You To Love Me” with hit-making duo Julia Michaels and Justin Tranter, the close collaborators who helped shape Revival’s lithe signature sound. Also involved were Swedish writer-producers Mattman & Robin and, notably, Finneas, whose work on the Billie Eilish catalog has proven his knack for less-is-more pop. Lyrically “Lose You To Love Me” gets a lot of mileage out of simple metaphors like “Set fires to my forest, and you let it burn/ Sang off-key in my chorus ’cause it wasn’t yours.” Sonically it’s a hall of mirrors, sending armies of multi-tracked Gomez voices cascading against each other, anchored by booming bass and tearjerker piano. It effectively communicates both the weight of her heartbreak and the glory of her triumph over it.

Nothing else on Rare is so heavy. The album consistently alludes to wreckage in Gomez’s past but errs on the breezy side, mostly exploring the freedom and relief of life on the other side of the trauma. Often it does so via the club, which is where the album’s other advance single lives. If “Lose You To Love Me” is a tearful face-to-face encounter with an ex, the briskly ricocheting dance-pop track “Look At Her Now” is the sound of leaving that ex in the past and plunging headfirst into the future. Another Michaels/Tranter cowrite, the track makes hooks out of Gomez’s wordless “mm-mm-mm” and producer Ian Kirkpatrick’s manipulated vocal samples, weaving them into lots of other moving pieces. The result evokes several kinds of exhilaration — of having your senses bombarded, of realizing you dodged a bullet, of infinite pathways opening up. “Took a few years to soak up the tears,” Gomez crisply intones. “But look at her now/ Watch her go.”

That sensation recurs frequently on Rare. “Feels so good to dance again,” Gomez half-whispers against the loudly popping bass groove of “Dance Again.” She trades that rhythm for digitized merengue on “Let Me Get Me,” a moody synth groove on the remix-ready “Vulnerable,” and Prince-indebted funk on “Fun,” which I’d promote heavily to radio if I worked at Interscope. Rare isn’t really a dance album, though. It’s more of a cornucopia of subgenres, all filtered through the aesthetic Gomez has crafted with Michaels and Tranter, the one that reached its creative pinnacle with the 2017 Talking Heads flip “Bad Liar.”

Many of Gomez’s other singles in recent years have diverged from that zone to some extent. Often, she struck Top 40 gold by merging big singalong choruses with assorted dance-pop genres: the tropical-house-infused Kygo collab “It Ain’t Me,” the post-EDM arena anthem “Wolves” with Marshmello, the 13 Reasons Why soundtrack hit “Back To You.” Those, plus the ill-fated Gucci Mane duet “Fetish,” are compiled as bonus tracks on the deluxe Target edition of Rare, but with the exception of “Bad Liar,” it’s clear they were left off the album proper for a reason. These quasi-EDM pop-rock tracks work just fine as Selena Gomez songs, but they’re a bit too bombastic for a Selena Gomez album, where the writing and production are smartly catered to the subtle, breathy vocals that best serve her voice.

It’s the same reason Kid Cudi’s impassioned bleat sounds so awkward on closing track “A Sweeter Place,” which might as well be filed away with the bonus tracks. Luckily, the tracklist is filled out with songs that maintain the minimalism of Revival hits like “Hands To Myself” and “Same Old Love” while showing how flexible that aesthetic can be. Rare’s title track and opening number, a kissoff to a former beau who didn’t recognize how special she was, comprises little more than a hip-swinging rhythm section that could almost pass for Spoon. On the other hand, the skeletal “Ring,” about toying with noncommittal lovers, resembles myriad Latin pop hits, from “Havana” to “Smooth.”

The well-executed genre exercises continue on the back half of the album. “People You Know,” a lament about losing friends, is a flickering electro-pop ballad that concludes with some Imogen Heap-style synthetic harmonies. The flirty, 6LACK-featuring R&B track “Crowded Room” demonstrates her capacity for falsetto flutter. “Kinda Crazy” segues between funky head-bob bass and gorgeous piano ripples untethered from gravity, while the loosely soulful “Cut You Off” lets loose with a surprising outburst of blues guitar and stuttering melodies in kind with Beyoncé or Ariana Grande. In sound and substance, each song differs from the next just enough; they cohere into a compelling self-portrait.

Gomez is not out here dropping Lemonade on us, but not every A-list pop album has to be an art-damaged epic blockbuster. Compared to less-than-spectacular recent efforts like Camila Cabello’s half-baked Romance and Harry Styles’ beige boomer bait Fine Line, Rare’s stylish assortment of songs is refreshing — a commanding, understated flex that suggests Gomez’s lengthy toil in the studio paid off. Maybe there’s a correlation: Selena Gomez albums don’t come along all that often, and neither do pop albums this fully realized and self-assured.

CREDIT: Kevin Winter/Getty Images

CHART WATCH

Travis Scott’s Jackboys crew debut at #1 on the Billboard 200 this week with their self-titled EP. The seven-song set, anchored by a remix of Scott’s #1 hit “Highest In The Room” featuring Rosalía and Lil Baby, also includes appearances by Scott’s Cactus Jack signees Sheck Wes, Don Toliver, and Chase B. Per Billboard, Jackboys tallied 154,000 equivalent album units and 79,000 in sales. The rest of the top 10 is old news — Roddy Ricch, Post Malone, Harry Styles, Frozen II, Billie Eilish, Young Thug, DaBaby, Taylor Swift, and Summer Walker — though not as old as all the Christmas music that dropped out of the top 10 now that the holidays are over.

Speaking of which, Mariah Carey’s perennial yuletide jam “All I Want For Christmas Is You” ended its three-week run atop the Hot 100 by becoming the first song to plummet all the way off the chart the week after being #1. This, plus the absence of the other three Christmas songs in last week’s top four, clears the way for Post Malone’s “Circles” to return to #1 for a third nonconsecutive week. Right behind Posty at a new #2 peak is Maroon 5’s “Memories.” And at #3, also a new peak, is Roddy Ricch’s “The Box” — his first top 10 hit, per Billboard.

The rest of the top 10: Lewis Capaldi’s former chart-topper “Someone You Loved” at #4, Arizona Zervas’ viral smash “Roxanne” at #5, Lizzo’s 2016 excavation “Good As Hell” at #6, Tones And I’s international sensation “Dance Monkey” at #7, Travis Scott’s former chart champion “Highest In The Room” at #8 (up from #38 thanks to that new remix on the Jackboys comp), Dan + Shay and Justin Bieber’s marital bliss anthem “10,000 Hours” at #9, and Selena Gomez’s #1-debuting “Lose You To Love Me” at #10.

POP FIVE

Justin Bieber – “Yummy”
Given the quality of the Purpose singles, I was really excited about new Justin Bieber finally dropping, but there is so much to dislike about this: the title, the inert attempt at played-out R&B maneuvers, the title, Bieber’s expressions throughout the video, the title…

Khalid – “Eleven”
Say this for Khalid: He has an aesthetic. I prefer that aesthetic when the beat booms as resoundingly as it does here.

Alicia Keys – “Underdog”
When I say this sounds like a hit, don’t necessarily assume that’s a compliment.

Celeste – “Stop This Flame”
The Sound Of 2020, eh? The jazz/house/R&B aesthetic of “Stop This Flame” is what UK pop always sounds like in my mind. That’s not to say I don’t like it; when executed this well, it’s timeless.

Why Don’t We – “Chills”
Better teeny-bopper R&B song than “Yummy.” Better corny metaphor too.

NEWS IN BRIEF

  • Paramore’s Hayley Williams has a mysterious teaser for her new solo project. [Petals For Armor]
  • Performers at the Grammy Awards on 1/26 will include Billie Eilish, Lizzo, Aerosmith, and Blake Shelton with Gwen Stefani. [Grammys]
  • Rae Sremmurd’s 19-year-old half-brother​ was arrested for the murder of the duo’s stepfather. [WTVA]
  • Mark Ronson teased a new Miley Cyrus collab. [Twitter]
  • Lady Gaga joined Oprah Winfrey to kick off the talk show host’s 2020 Vision: Your Life In Focus arena tour. [YouTube]
  • Taylor Swift will be honored at the GLAAD Awards. [People]
  • BTS have a new album, MAP OF THE SOUL : 7, out 2/21.
  • Jack Antonoff says there will be a new Bleachers album this year. [Twitter]
  • Noah Cyrus covered Kid Rock & Sheryl Crow’s “Picture.” [YouTube]
  • BBC Radio 1 made Meghan Trainor sing “All About That Bass” to the tune of Billie Eilish’s “Bad Guy.” [Twitter]
  • LA is getting a big interactive pop-up dedicated to Britney Spears. [THR]
  • Kesha announced a North American High Road tour. [San Diego Tribune]
  • Lana Del Rey has postponed her poetry book/spoken word album Violet Bent Backwards Over The Grass to next month. [Twitter]
  • Coldplay, Jonas Brothers, Brittany Howard, and Brandi Carlile will play intimate shows for Citi during Grammy Week in LA. [Business Wire]
  • Ellen DeGeneres sent a disguised Dua Lipa to speak her lyrics to unsuspecting World Market customers. [YouTube]
  • Beyoncé previewed her Adidas x IVY PARK collection. [YouTube]
  • Hailee Steinfeld released a video for “Wrong Direction.” [YouTube]

HOLD ON, WE’RE GOING HOME