Out of all of NPR’s Tiny Desk concerts, T-Pain’s is (and rightfully should be) known as the most legendary. He performs at NPR sans autotune -- and going against all preconceptions of T-Pain’s innate talent, he blows everyone away, including the whole internet. Turns out the autotune is a strictly stylistic choice. He lets loose un-mechanized versions of “Buy You A Drank,” “Up Down” and “Drankin’ Patna,” transforming his club anthems into beautiful ballads about modern love before his audience’s very eyes. If you’ve ever heard someone defending T-Pain’s natural singing abilities, this is the video that started that argument in the first place.
Chance The Rapper
Chance The Rapper was the performer at NPR’s most recent hip-hop concert, and of course he brought his soulful, kind-hearted personality to their tiny desk. After a slow rendition of “Juke Jam” where Chance did double duty by also covering Justin Beiber’s hook, and Nico Segal (FKA Donnie Trumpet) added in his signature horns, Chance begins reciting a poem he wrote for NPR that very morning. He calls it “The Other Side,” and it just goes to show how genuine Chance is as an artist. Just when the Mr. Rogers of rap can’t get any more heartfelt, he decides to cover Stevie Wonder’s “They Won’t Go When I Go” for his friend who just lost someone special in their life.
Anderson .Paak and The Free Nationals
Anderson .Paak is one of the most genre-bending artists to appear on the hip-hop scene as of late, characterized by his unique role as the drummer/singer/rapper in his band The Free Nationals. Of course he and his band killed the NPR Tiny Desk concert, playing three cuts from Malibu and “Suede” from Paak’s collab with Knxwledge Yes Lawd! Paak rocked the drums the entire set, providing a light beat to the stripped down versions of his songs. The most notable of the bunch being a wonderfully minimalistic rendition of the group’s Rock/R&B anthem “Come Down.” Our only qualm is that he didn’t bring out his 5 year old son to dance along as he usually does at his concerts.
While 2016 will go down in history as an notoriously shitty year, there were a few good things to come out of it -- one of those being the return of Gucci Mane, and NPR was there to witness his victory lap. Although Gucci and NPR might seem like an odd duo, Gucci’s celebratory nature last year was a contagious dose of happiness that not even NPR could pass up on. Plus it’s great to see the best teeth in the game up close. He performed three songs at the tiny desk, but “Last Time” definitely takes the cake with its lyrics that address the “Gucci clone” conspiracy and joke about the “ice cream” on his face, drawing a lot of laughs from the audience.
Sampha’s concert is easily among the most intimate of NPR’s Tiny Desk series. He immediately launches into “Plastic 100 Degrees,” and the piano-backed rendition is guaranteed to give you goosebumps. Sampha wastes no time showing his audience exactly why hip-hop legends like Kanye West and Frank Ocean have called on him to create true emotion in their tracks -- his melancholy renditions of “(No One Knows Me) Like The Piano” and “Blood On Me” paint gloomy gray pictures of his personal strife experienced in England. It’s the small, personal settings like this that really bring out Sampha’s incredible talent as an artist.
Hidden behind Big Baby D.R.A.M.’s signature smile is a formidable secret: this dude can sing. It’s not just production magic on his debut album, and it’s not some melodic coaching from Chance -- D.R.A.M steps up to NPR’s tiny desk and breaks out soulful renditions of his many hit rap songs. “Sweet VA Breeze” and “Special” in particular are warming and wondrous, with light guitar and drums taps backing up his slow and impassioned performance. D.R.A.M. ends the set with “Broccoli,” a crude-yet-lighthearted track that he manages to turn into a humorous slow-jam, repeatedly drawing laughter from the NPR audience.
While T-Pain’s Tiny Desk concert was legendary, and Sampha’s was beyond intimate, Common’s is decidedly the most powerful. NPR gives Common a tiny stage at the White House of all places, and he seizes the opportunity to break out some of his most politically profound tracks. His performances of “Letter To The Free” and “The Day The Women Took Over” with Bilal are hypnotizing as he waxes poetic about the fallacies of American society, made all the more compelling by the context of the 2016 presidential election. Common’s metaphor-heavy storytelling in our country’s capital is especially magical given that he performed in October of last year -- only a month before his songs would take on a whole new meaning.
Among the rappers to grace NPR’s tiny desk, Rapsody arguably brings the best rhyming talent to the office. Her performance of “The Man” quickly escalates to Common-level storytelling while simultaneously shedding new perspectives on gender roles. Between songs she explains to the audience that she’s trying to be a different kind of female rapper -- one that’s not overblown with sex appeal and paints a different picture of what it means to be a woman in the industry. And as she conveys on “Hard To Choose,” it’s not easy to be chosen for success as a black female artist if you don’t have idyllic beauty. Luckily Rapsody was born to break down barriers.
Run The Jewels
Run The Jewels, aside from Gucci Mane, might be the most profane group to grace the NPR’s tiny desk. Yet their political activism in both their music and real life -- Killer Mike being a crucial spokesperson of Bernie Sanders’ 2016 presidential run -- makes Mike and El-P a uniquely perfect fit for the NPR lifestyle. After performing their boastful and humorous tracks “Talk To Me” and “Legend Has It” off of Run The Jewels 3, they get into a calmer state for “Report To The Shareholders,” which addresses the power of friendship under the current political climate. It’s just great to see Mike and El-P treat each other like brothers on stage.
Let’s face it: until NPR starts bringing more R&B artists to their office, it’s going to be a while before any of them top John Legend’s performance (Frank Ocean, please). He’s just too damn good at singing. His stripped-down rendition of “All Of Me” is even more magical today than it was when he sang it for NPR two months after marrying Chrissy Teigan, who is both the inspiration for the song and the other half of pop culture’s reigning cutest couple that’s still going strong into 2017.