Five Burning Questions: Billboard Staffers Discuss Selena Gomez's Narrow No. 1 Debut For 'Rare' Album

Selena Gomez
Ashley Osborn

Selena Gomez

After one of the closest races at the top of the Billboard 200 that we've seen in recent months, returning pop star Selena Gomez emerged victorious over rapper Roddy Ricch's two-week chart-topper Please Excuse Me For Being Antisocial. The margin of victory was minimal, with Rare's 112,000 equivalent album units moved just barely edging Antisocial's 110,000. 

It's Gomez's third No. 1 on the Billboard 200 -- and likely the most important to her personally, as she was moved enough by the prospect of what she called "the most important album I've ever released" potentially debuting atop the chart to share a video on Instagram Stories asking fans to help it get there. But how meaningful is it for her career? And what long-dormant pop star could be next to make a similarly big comeback? Billboard staffers debate these questions and more below.

1. Well, Selena Gomez got the No. 1 for Rare that she clearly wanted pretty badly. On a scale from 1-10, how big a triumph is the set's first-week performance for her?

Eric Frankenberg: 5? Early-mid January hasn’t historically been crowded with superstar albums, so Selena putting out her first release in five years in an empty market seemed like a sure shot. But, she’s been untested as an album artist in the streaming era, and as we’ve seen over and over, major pop artists of 2010-15 don’t always hit the same way in 2019-20. So she passed the first test (or second, after the album’s lead single went to No. 1 on the Hot 100). Now, we’ll see if the generally positive reception to Rare will lead to longevity and consistent streaming. No comment on the Instagram story.

Gab GinsbergRevival started with 117,000 equivalent album units back in 2015, so she’s holding pretty steady with Rare at 112,000. I did notice that Please Excuse Me for Being Antisocial had 110,000 equivalent album units earned this week -- so Gomez only beat him by 2K. Selena's pop prowess beating the rapper with the biggest song in America right now? Let’s go with an 8 on the triumph scale.

Jason Lipshutz: Probably around a 6 -- this is Gomez’s third career No. 1 album, after all, so while she clearly wanted that third chart-topper, she had scored a much more important one a few months ago when “Lose You To Love Me” became her first No. 1 on the Hot 100. I do give Gomez points for succeeding against the stiff competition of Roddy Ricch, whose “The Box” is dominating the Hot 100 and could have easily propelled his album past Rare for the summit of the Billboard 200. A narrow, impressive, if not groundbreaking, win for Selena.

Andrew Unterberger: I'll say a 6. It'd probably be a 7 or 8, since anytime a pop star can buck obvious radio trends and make the most personal, interesting album of their career while still maintaining consistent commercial returns, that's pretty much the ultimate goal. But while the Instagram Stories plea doesn't cheapen her victory, it does rob it a little of its charm -- especially because it comes a week after Justin Bieber essentially did the same in an ultimately losing effort. Honestly, Roddy Ricch is just as much a winner this week at No. 2 on the 200, just for getting to play the scrappy underdog once again. 

Taylor Weatherby: I’d say 5, maybe 6. Obviously the No. 1 is a 10 to Gomez and her fans, but it’s not really surprising to me considering the hype around her comeback. Plus, her first-week numbers aren’t insanely impressive compared to her pop superstar cohorts like Ariana Grande -- and even compared to country powerhouses like Luke Combs, Gomez’s 112,000 equivalent album units is 60,000 short of his first-week performance. I don’t want to discredit her No. 1, especially since she beat out the currently unstoppable Roddy Ricch -- but honestly I wouldn’t doubt it if Gomez is a little underwhelmed with the album’s first week performance herself.

2. After a couple pretty sleepy Januarys in a row, most of us have been pretty taken aback by how early in the calendar year Selena released her comeback album -- and it seems to be a model other major artists have been following in subsequent weeks. What do you think the logic is behind the strategy, and how well do you think it paid off for Rare?

Eric Frankenberg: Way, way back in the early 2010s, November and December were still the busiest months of the album release calendar. Artists would capitalize on holiday sales, specifically from Black Friday through Christmas, to lift sales counts from record-breaking lows to party like it was 1999. This affected everyone, from new releases to catalog holiday titles to Adele, who went from dominating the chart with big sales figures to dominating the chart with gargantuan sales figures. Then, in January, everyone would be exhausted and no one bought any music.

Now that streaming has become dominant and CDs (or even iTunes downloads) aren’t prime stocking stuffers, chart patterns have evened out a bit, almost to the point of November and December being extra light on new releases. What better way to make an introduction, or re-introduction, than to use the new year to begin a new album cycle. It was smart of Selena and her team to not waste any time and beat the rush -- given the new projections for next week’s chart, Selena would be aiming for a low-top-5 debut had she released only one week later.

Gab Ginsberg: I don’t think it’s more logical than any other strategy (ticket bundles, surprise drops, etc), but it clearly pays off to have all eyes on you, and only you. It definitely helps that she really got the ball rolling back in October with the first single, and now she has the runway set up for the summer. (Don’t be surprised if she makes live appearances at Taylor Swift’s Lover Fests!)

Jason Lipshutz: This December and January have included more major pop projects than any other post-Black Friday period I can remember -- along with Rare, we got new projects from Camila Cabello, Harry Styles and Halsey. I’d chalk up a lot of this to coincidence, as well as the growing lack of concern to get an artist’s album in stores in time for the holiday rush, since fewer consumers are gifting CDs to family and friends. Years ago, every A-lister needed to have their full-length in stores by late November; now, they may be more concerned with releasing something at the top of the year and tying that release to a tour on-sale to signal a major calendar year.

Andrew Unterberger: Yeah, it seems like a pretty "why not?" strategy at this point. Rollouts aren't as long as they used to be, thankfully, and January is as prime real estate to dominate the pop conversation as any other month on the calendar, really -- especially with the Grammys, Super Bowl and Oscars still all multiple weeks out. I think the timing worked out pretty swimmingly for Rare, which got to essentially be the first major new release of the 2020s -- not counting her ex's new single anyway, though that comparison is only really helping her if anything. 

Taylor Weatherby: I think it’s as simple as this: If the past few Januarys have been sleepy, why not capitalize on a slow time? A highly anticipated release like a Selena Gomez album will do well no matter what, but being the only one in the race certainly puts you at an advantage. It feels like timing has become quite obsolete in the streaming era anyway, so I don’t really see the difference between a January and June release at this point. Even though Roddy Ricch served up some stiff competition for Rare, the album’s early-in-the-year release paid off in the way she likely hoped with the No. 1 debut -- but I guess we’ll see how it fares come 2021 award season. 

3. In addition to the album debuting at No. 1, the title track also debuts at No. 30 on the Hot 100 this week. Do you think it'll climb higher from there, and if so how high might it go? 

Eric Frankenberg: Not immediately, but yes. Its splashy debut is heightened by the excitement of the album release, so it may drop off quickly -- but there’s room to grow. It’s different enough from lead single “Lose You To Love Me,” which has already been out for three months and is a clear standout on the album. An interesting music video and radio push in a few weeks once streams start to build organically could bring it to the top 10.

Gab GInsberg: It’ll definitely go higher, but I can see it fizzling once it reaches the top 5. It’s a cool song, but not as undeniably catchy as, say, “Look At Her Now" -- which I hope takes a roundabout tour to No. 1.

Jason Lipshutz: It could eventually climb into the top 20 once pop radio latches onto it, although I’d be a little surprised if it became another top 10 hit for Gomez. Make no mistake, “Rare” rules as an opening thesis statement to the rest of the album, but it’s not as striking as “Lose You to Love Me” or as immediate as something like “Dance Again,” which hopefully will become a single down the road.

Andrew Unterberger: It'll be interesting to see if the cross-platform success of "Lose You to Love Me" leads to a return to pop radio's can't-miss tier for Gomez, who saw more mixed returns there for her previous run of post-Revival singles. I'm cautiously optimistic, though I'll also predict it stalls just outside the top 10. If it gets there -- or even gets particularly close -- I think that's a pretty big win for the pop star. 

Taylor Weatherby: I could see it breaking top 20, maybe even top 15. Not sure it’ll go all the way to the top 10, mostly because the tracks in top 10 are pretty heavy hitters at the moment -- but also because I don’t think “Lose You to Love Me” has lost its momentum, and won’t for a while still. I’d love for “Rare” to be a top 10 hit, though (it’s my favorite on the album), so I hope I’m wrong!

4. Not counting the two tracks released ahead of it, if you had to pick another song on the album to be the next single off Rare, which would you go with? 

Eric Frankenberg: After the emotional winter introduction of “Lose You To Love Me” and the implied spring follow-up of “Rare,” I’d go with “Ring” for the summer. It merges the laid back minimalism of “Bad Liar” but with a punched-up hook that could sit better on Top 40 radio, especially after the established momentum of her lead singles.

Gab Ginsberg: “Dance Again” is obviously a bop that's also quite heartfelt at its core. The pre-chorus is also extremely fun to sing along to ("I kickstart the rhythm/ All the trauma's in remission"), which is vital in the TikTok age. Or perhaps a remix of the already-slinky “Ring,” with the addition of a hip-hop feature?

Jason Lipshutz: “Dance Again,” which has the most instantly arresting chorus, or “Vulnerable,” which is reminiscent of Taylor Swift’s “Delicate” in the way it cloaks the singer’s emotion in Auto-Tune before stripping back the studio effects and leaning into the bareness. I could foresee both of those songs becoming hits as 2020 progresses; let’s get “Dance Again” on top 40 radio throughout the summer, and “Vulnerable” during the fall, when the weather’s turning.

Andrew Unterberger: "Fun" for me -- mostly just because given the choice, I'll always drift towards Gomez's co-writes with her professional soulmate, Julia Michaels. And it does live up to the title!

Taylor Weatherby"Cut You Off” is a cool vibe that would be a nice follow-up to the ballad that is “Lose You to Love Me” and more upbeat “Rare.” Plus, the lyrics are both relatable and empowering, and it’d also be awesome to hear that jazzy guitar solo on the radio! I’m also a big fan of “Fun,” which has a bouncy melody that makes it a great single choice -- or at least a great song for the dance floor.

5. Now that Selena's full comeback is complete, which other pop star who hasn't released a new album in several years are you most looking forward to returning? 

Eric Frankenberg: Hard to choose! Even more than most years, it seems like almost every major pop star is primed for a big 2020. I’m most looking forward to (and most curious about) Lady Gaga’s upcoming album. Her career trajectory has been pretty wild to watch, and she’s been building back general public good will since post-Artpop, peaking at the Oscars last year. Yes, “Shallow” was a major hit and will be a Gaga standard forever, but being so tied to A Star is Born, it felt a bit outside of her “proper” “pop” chart history (case in point: it brought Bradley Cooper to the top of the Hot 100). And, per whispers on the internet and some clues from Gaga herself, it seems as though whatever is coming next will be more in line with the dance-pop of Gaga 1.0. So we’ll see! I hope it’s great!

Gab Ginsberg: LOVATICS UNITE!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Jason Lipshutz: The obvious answer is Rihanna, but I’m equally fascinated by what Adele is going to do next, coming off the longest break of her career. Rihanna has hinted at the sonic direction of her next project, while with Adele, we don’t really have any clues. We’re approaching the five-year anniversary of 25, and if and when 30 comes, I’ll be ready for it.

Andrew Unterberger: I don't know if it's the one I'm most excited about, but the one I might be the most curious about is Childish Gambino. We haven't gotten an album from him since 2016's P-Funk-inspired odyssey Awaken, My Love!, and in the meantime he's scored two astronomical (and wildly different) hit singles and become one of the century's biggest cross-platform entertainment stars -- and as an artist increasingly at odds with his public perception. What could a new Gambino album (reportedly his final under the name) possibly sound like at this point? Does he have any more idea than we do yet? 

Taylor Weatherby: This feels kind of weird to say in a Selena Gomez discussion, but I’m so pumped to hear what else Justin Bieber has in store. I don’t hate “Yummy,” but I also don’t believe it’s the strongest song on his forthcoming album. Even just the three other songs he teased in his #Bieber2020 sound like they may be even better than “Yummy.” Frankly, I think both Bieber and Gomez are genuinely in the happiest places they’ve ever been personally -- that clearly had a positive impact on Gomez’s music, so I’m ready to hear how it has musically impacted the Biebs too.

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