• This Is Marnie and She Is It and You Are It and So Is That and He Is It and She Is It and It Is It

    Marnie Stern, 'The Chronicles of Marnia' (Kill Rock Stars)

    Optimism against the odds: That's been Marnie Stern's attitude from the beginning. Optimism that, out of the approximate 3,543 notes per song she might attempt, guitar-wise, she'd manage to hit at least 3,000. Optimism like she voices on "Ruler," from 2008 sophomore album This Is It and I Am It and You Are It and So Is That and He Is It and She Is It and It Is It and That Is That: "We will get out alive, this much I know." Optimism like naming a record This Is It and I Am It and You Are It and So Is That and He Is It and She Is It and It Is It and That Is That.Her third record, 2010's Marnie Stern, signaled its relative downheartedness with a mirror-gazing title and not one but two songs about a deceased ex-lover: "You will always be here! And here!

  • Action Bronson / Photo by Roger Kisby/Getty

    Action Bronson, 'Rare Chandeliers' (Vice)

    Action Bronson is a deft rapper, sure: a formalist, a casual virtuoso, a fat man with big lungs and superlative breath control. He's from Queens, which automatically makes him a New York rapper, with all the grasping, palm-sweating expectation that designation implies. This has been a city in constant need of a savior, and to rap in one of the five boroughs is to inadvertently apply for the job. His qualifications for the position are impeccable — that Ghostface-reminiscent rasp, the flawless internal rhymes, the outsize personality — and, at the same time, irrelevant. New York rap nostalgia, like most nostalgia, is ultimately about a longing not for skill but for place: M.O.P.'s Brownsville, Nas' Queens, Cam'ron's Harlem.And Action Bronson, perhaps more than any New York rapper to come along in a while, understands this.

  • How to Dress Well / Photo by Jesse Lirola

    How To Dress Well, 'Total Loss' (Acephale/Weird World)

    1. I interviewed Tom Krell, he of shadowy bedroom-R&B project How to Dress Well, in early 2010, shortly after he began posting a series of free EPs online. It was one of those interviews that swiftly became a therapy session: I remember him asking me something to the effect of, What should I do? He was in Cologne at the time, far from whatever blog- and Brooklyn-centric groundswell of support was gathering for his brief, pretty, faintly melodic songs, and he didn't know what to make of it.2. Despite all appearances of reticence and shyness on Krell's newest, Total Loss — the watery piano and the barely heard lyrics and the voice that flickers in and out of view — How to Dress Well is an ambitious project with ambitious aims.

  • Azealia Banks / Photo by Jason Nocito

    The Making of Azealia Banks

    The invention of Azealia Banks, the Harlem-born rapper, actress, singer, dancer, and — maybe, someday — bona fide music-industry star, took place on November 9, 2008. Some might say it happened earlier. When she was a kid, Banks danced at block parties, patterning her steps after videos by Bow Wow, Lil' Romeo, and B2K. Later she starred in plays. At the Fiorello H. LaGuardia High School of Music & Art and Performing Arts — the same school that Robert De Niro, Liza Minnelli, and Nicki Minaj attended — an agent saw her act in a play called City of Angels and took her on as a client, sending her on auditions for TBS, Nickelodeon, and Law & Order.

  • The Boss / Getty

    Rick Ross, 'God Forgives, I Don't' (Def Jam)

    On the cover of God Forgives, I Don't, Rick Ross poses in a church, wearing a tangle of gold chains around his neck — ten of them, to be exact. We know this because he tells us: Album closer "Ten Jesus Pieces" is unambiguous. "One Jesus piece was always fly," the Boss told MTV. "But I just wanted ten. I just wanted to go to that next level." Call me crazy, but I'm pretty sure one of those Jesus pieces has Ross' own face on it. And I think it's there on the cover, buried among the many guises of Christ, like it was the first one he put on that morning, like it's the last one he took off that night. He probably kisses it before storing it in the bedside table where the lawsuits gather dust, evidence of the time a real-life kingpin named Rick Ross sued, in vain, to get his name and life story back. Get in line, Jesus. Rick Ross' lawyer will be with you in due time.

  • Usher

    Usher, 'Looking 4 Myself' (RCA)

    To the list of revelations that mankind has had while dancing at 4 a.m. on the Spanish island of Ibiza, let us now add Looking 4 Myself, Usher's seventh studio album and his best since 2004's Confessions. Let us also note that Usher pronounces "Ibiza" with the soft Catalan lisp that is correct, but nevertheless shiver-inducing, no matter how many times you hear a certain kind of worldly person attempt it. As in: "I went to Coachella, and I went to Ibitha…." I know this because I heard Usher do it over the phone a couple months ago. I'd been granted a few minutes to talk to the singer about "Climax," his new album's smoldering, Diplo-produced first single. It's the kind of weird song that gives you hope. The bridge is by downtown composer Nico Muhly. There's no hook, no drop, only the lightest impression of drums.

  • Fiona Apple / Photo by Daniel King

    Fiona Apple's Return: Idle No More

    In front of a tangle of abstract sculpture in the corner booth of a deserted restaurant off the lobby of a midtown Manhattan hotel, Fiona Apple is answering questions. It's a rainy day in April and really she's just talking. She's told me she lives in Los Angeles, but she doesn't leave the house. Apple is 34 years old and doesn't have a driver's license. "I'm noticing now that I'm not feeling shame saying this," she says. "Whereas before I probably would've, like, lied a little bit about it and been like, 'Yeah, you know, I see friends sometimes.' But I really don't." She says when her phone rings with an invitation, she actually says, Oh, fuck! out loud, because then it's like, "I should go do this because if I don't, then that's really stupid. I'm gonna look like a crazy person." Apple says she's thinking about moving back east, but she's waiting for her dog to die first.

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