“Took a few years to soak up the tears, but look at her now,” Selena Gomez sings on “Look At Her Now,” one of the standouts on her third studio album, Rare.
The song has been out since October, when Gomez released it as a preview of the project; in retrospect, this line functioned as an unwitting preview of Rare -- encapsulating the thematic spirit of the new full-length, released last Friday (Jan. 10), more effectively than any other.
On her first album since 2015’s Revival, Gomez meditates on the well-documented personal hardships she’s faced in the interim -- health battles and tabloid-friendly breakups included -- but positions herself as reborn. Fueled by years of introspection and a new sense of personal strength, Gomez uses Rare to ball up her self-doubt and punt it away, yielding a sharp, rhythmic collection of risen-from-the-ashes pop tracks.
“I wanted a record that made people feel something,” Gomez tells Billboard, “whether that was a hard relationship to get through, or gaining your confidence back, or being okay with just having fun. So there’s different layers to it, and I’m so grateful that it ended up becoming what it is now, after four and a half years.”
The 27-year-old former Disney Channel star has been an A-list pop artist for roughly a decade: beginning in 2009, her tween-friendly group Selena Gomez & The Scene scored five top 40 singles on the Billboard Hot 100 chart. When she transitioned to a solo career in 2013, Gomez continued collecting radio hits like “Come & Get It,” “Good For You,” “Same Old Love” and “Hands to Myself.”
Since Revival, the hits kept coming in the form of one-off singles and collaborations -- “Bad Liar,” “Back to You,” “It Ain’t Me” with Kygo, “Wolves” with Marshmello. Yet a full-length didn’t materialize as Gomez battled lupus, underwent a kidney transplant, made headlines for her relationships with fellow pop stars, and opened up about her struggles with anxiety.
“Selena only commits to things that move her and/or tell her story,” says John Janick, Interscope chairman/CEO, when asked to describe the past few years of working with Gomez. “Creatively, music is a constant in her life, and it felt right for her to put out music regularly over the last few years. It also happens to be a smart strategy in today’s streaming world, and it allowed her to experiment with different genres.”
Those four aforementioned tracks appear on Rare as deluxe-edition bonus cuts, but otherwise, the new album operates as a cohesive clean slate: songs like “Dance Again,” “Let Me Get Me” and “Vulnerable” find a rejuvenated Gomez exhaling and embracing movement, letting her breathy vocals guide the deepened bass and tightened beats. There are whiffs of funk-pop and electronic music; “Lose You To Love Me,” the album’s lead single and Gomez’s first Hot 100 No. 1, is the only ballad on the album, but serves as a stunning shot of catharsis instead of a tempo killer.
Gomez sounds as personally triumphant as her new album during a phone conversation with Billboard on the Monday morning following the album release, in a discussion on Rare’s standout tracks, her future music plans, finding greater control in the studio and letting go of her bitterest feelings.
What have the past few days been like for you?
It’s been a lot of work -- we had some stuff to do in L.A., and at the end of last year we went over to London and Paris, so I haven’t really come up for air. But it’s all a good thing, because this is probably one of the greatest things that’s ever happened to me.
Listening to “Lose You To Love Me” and “Look At Her Now” when they were released in October, it was clear that this was going to be a pretty revealing project, but it’s even more personal than expected.
I’ve said this before, but I used to be terrified of saying anything. I would find myself protecting people that never protected me or cared for me. And I wouldn’t want to say the wrong thing, and I wouldn’t want people to think that I had any other motive, other than just being a kind person -- though that is who I am and I am proud of that. I was just done, you know? Just done being silent, and I felt like I deserved to have a moment for myself, after going through so much, and throwing that all into this album. It wasn’t even a thought in my mind that I was doing the wrong thing.
I think I got to a place where I just said, this is what I’m gonna do and I’m not gonna be afraid of it. And people might react however they might react, but I know that I’m proud of putting out the music that I did with the content that it has, because I want nothing more than to relate to people -- and I want them to know that they’re not alone, and that all of these feelings are completely normal. And they watched me grow up, so I think this was an important album for me to speak up.
You’ve spoken about becoming more forthcoming in the studio -- even with close collaborators like songwriters Julia Michaels and Justin Tranter.
Right. I took over completely after the last year or two. And I had the people around me that were my partners throughout all of it, and specifically with Justin and Julia, they have become my family. They’re able to bring out the best in me. I had a say in production, I had a say in how I wanted everything to be put together, melodies -- [I was] more involved than I’ve ever been before, and… I could not be more proud of an album, or a project that I’ve done. And it’s exciting, really exciting.
The song that really sticks out to me is “Vulnerable,” which is focused on the strength involved with taking and retaking leaps of faith, even when it doesn’t work out.
That’s actually one of my favorites as well, for that reason. It is saying, after completely being depleted from life or whatever... I turned bitter for a while. I was extremely bitter and very dry. I was just disconnected to my feelings for so long. But I go to therapy, I talk about everything that I’m walking through. I felt like, "Why do I do this? Why do I give myself away to people, even if it’s just friends or random people? Why do I do that?"
And I realized it is because one of my strengths, that I thought was a weakness, is being vulnerable. So when we worked on the song, that’s exactly where it started. If I can give you all of myself, are you able to take that, and take care of that? And if you’re not, then I’m still gonna be who I am. I’m just not gonna have you in my life, but I’m gonna continue to be who I am.
That is one of the favorite [things] that I’ve been hearing so far, from multiple people saying they love it, so that’s super exciting. Because you never know -- it could be a single, you know? I don't know.
Are there any parts of this album that were either difficult to record for you, or difficult to listen back to now?
I had worked on the album for four years, so there are songs that we had just finished toward the end of closing, going and mixing the album, so there’s a variety of it. What’s interesting is that the songs… just mean something different to me now. And I think that’s a huge reason why I waited. I didn’t want to be triggered by the same things -- I wanted to get out what I was feeling, and then I wanted to celebrate it. And that’s what happened.
When I wrote the song “Lose You to Love Me,” I was kind of a mess. It was really difficult for me. And by the time we shot the music video at the end of the year, it had a completely different meaning, and it was so freeing. It was actually fun for me -- I think, because I let it go, it actually meant that I let it go within myself as well. And I couldn’t have asked for a better way to close a chapter in my life.
When the album came out last week, you also released a music video for the title track. “Rare” is officially the next single, correct?
Yes! I have always loved that song, and I always wanted it to be the title of the record. And I felt like it was a great complement to where I left off with my other singles, because it is honest and raw, and basically saying, “I know I don’t have it all, I’m not perfect, but I know that I deserve great, and I deserve love, and I deserve all of it, self-love.” It’s just one of those things where it’s a confidence thing, but without being cocky.
“Lose You To Love Me” already hit the top of the Hot 100, and became your first No. 1 on the chart last year. Do you have any specific goals in terms of what you hope this album accomplishes in 2020?
Specifically this year, as far as everything, there’s a lot of stuff that I have been working on that I can’t wait to talk about and release. I think with music, I’m not gonna stop -- which is a first for me. Usually once I’ve completed a project, I feel okay with putting it down for a while. But I think I’m going to continue to do that, and perhaps some side projects with music. I have all these different goals, and I feel like I’m in the happiest place I’ve ever been in my life, and I say that with such conviction. So I think that the possibilities are endless.
That’s an encouraging mind set, especially since it’s already resulted in this album.
It just took me a couple years to get through some s--t. But then it came out great!