Call this one “Living Documented.”
Three months after the premiere of “Living Undocumented” — an acclaimed reality series about undocumented immigrants that she helped shepherd to Netflix — Selena Gomez has returned to music with “Rare,” her first album since the platinum-certified “Revival” in 2015.
Fans of the pop singer and burgeoning filmmaker know she’s been through plenty in the intervening half-decade, including breakups (and makeups) with Justin Bieber and the Weeknd, struggles with depression and anxiety, even a kidney transplant that stemmed from complications of lupus.
Yet the 27-year-old Gomez, a former Disney Channel star who seemed to get into music initially to sell more lunch boxes, hasn’t talked much about these events; what’s known — or assumed — has come mostly from the breathless media coverage of her perpetually trending topic of a life.
She finally has her say on “Rare,” her third and most meaningful solo disc, which addresses both the romantic and health-related matters as well as the overarching experience of being as closely scrutinized as anyone with 165 million followers on Instagram.
“Is there a place where I can hide away?” she wonders in the LP’s closer, “A Sweeter Place,” before letting her mind wander to imagine just such a spot: “Out of the scene / Out in the wild … Up in the clouds / Far from the crowds.”
So the poetry’s not the greatest. But the pleading tone of her voice, surrounded by dreamy synths produced in part by Kid Cudi, convinces you she’s trying to do more than extend her brand.
Indeed, Gomez — a willing participant, let’s not forget, in the maintenance of her renown — cuts an unusually sympathetic figure on “Rare,” which after years of crafty but inessential product introduces her as an artist with distinct sensitivities and a clear point of view. It opens with the slinky title track about a guy who doesn’t make her feel special in the way she knows she deserves. He (or someone like him) shows up again in “Kinda Crazy,” a chewy funk-pop number in which she calls him out for gaslighting her: “You’re the one who started talking to me. … And now you’re treating me like I’m insane.”
The grievances get more specific in “Look at Her Now,” about a young man who can’t handle fame, and the stately, Hot-100-topping “Lose You to Love Me,” widely thought to chronicle Gomez’s final split from Bieber in 2018. “In two months you replaced us like it was easy,” she sings in an all-but-certain reference to Bieber’s taking up with Hailey Baldwin later that year.
Yet even when she’s moaning a celebrity’s blues — or doling out clunky self-help affirmations like “Confidence is throwing your heart through every brick wall” — Gomez stays strikingly relatable on “Rare.” You’re drawn in by her confessions and accusations and by the occasional flash of wit; you root for her as you would a friend, never less than in “Dance Again,” where she sings about getting back to being on speaking terms with a body whose “trauma’s in remission.” It’s a reminder of how long she’s been with us — a veteran well short of her 30th birthday.
As a singer, Gomez understates these heavy emotions instead of dramatizing them. But her light touch isn’t merely a strategic choice; she knows that sighs and mumbles can conjure a sense of intimacy all the more valuable in stories we think we’ve already heard. (You’d believe Gomez was emulating the whispery Billie Eilish, whose brother Finneas turns up as a producer on “Rare,” if Eilish hadn’t recently compared her smash “Bad Guy” to the theme song from Gomez’s old Disney series “Wizards of Waverly Place.”)
There’s also an infectious spirit of adventure to the album’s arrangements that brings you over to Gomez’s side. The singer released a number of far-flung singles between “Revival” and “Rare” — including collaborations with Marshmello and Gucci Mane and a track that prominently sampled Talking Heads’ post-punk “Psycho Killer” — and here she continues to dabble while staying inside her voice’s relatively narrow comfort zone: “Vulnerable” is a warm disco jam; “Ring” rides a plinking acoustic groove that recalls Gotye’s “Somebody That I Used to Know”; “Let Me Get Me” has a faint Latin vibe, though it was concocted in the studio by Mattman & Robin, a Swedish duo under the tutelage of Max Martin. (Other writers and producers featured on “Rare” include Justin Tranter, Julia Michaels, Ian Kirkpatrick and Jason Evigan.)
At moments Gomez seems to be working in the shadow of another kiddie-TV veteran, Ariana Grande, who used last year’s masterful “Thank U, Next” to unpack a number of complicated incidents about which countless people had drawn their own conclusions. “Rare” isn’t quite up to Grande’s level. But you have to cheer any pop star eager to put into her music what she might have put on Instagram.