NPR’s Tiny Desk Concert series has become a favourite amongst music lovers the world over since first airing over a decade ago. Founded by NPR’s Bob Boilen after he grew frustrated with going to gigs and being unable to clearly hear the music due to people talking, the long-running online series gives music fans the chance to connect with artists in the comfort of their own home without distractions.
Dominated by indie artists during the early years, the Tiny Desk Concert has become much more diverse of late, with hip-hop becoming a major force behind the series continued popularity. The enclosed space of the NPR offices allows hip-hop artists, who usually perform to boisterous crowds with extravagant set designs, to express themselves in an intimate environment through minimal instrumentation with a heavy focus on lyrical content.
With that in mind, here are 11 of the most compelling hip-hop themed NPR Tiny Desk Concerts since the series first kicked off in 2008.
Ty Dolla $ign
Due to the pandemic artists have been performing in their own homes instead of the NPR offices, with Ty Dolla $ign’s recent showing one of the standouts of 2020. Joined by a full band (including Skrillex on the decks), Ty’s six-song set is an R&B fuelled master class driven by fan favourites Paranoid and Your Turn and featuring Ty shredding on the guitar.
Nobody has ever looked happier to be part of NPR’s Tiny Desk Concert than Noname. The Chicago spitter wears a constant smile throughout and takes the time to chat with the audience and explain the meaning behind her songs. She even gets the NPR staff involved in a sing-along during Yesterday, resulting in one of the most feel-good moments in the show's history.
Run The Jewels
This is hip-hop at its simplistic best. Killer Mike and E-LP, backed by Trackstar The DJ, drop impactful political and socially themed rhymes over hard-hitting futuristic beats. There’s no fuss or fanfare, with Run The Jewels letting their music do the talking.
Six months after his release from prison, Gucci Mane’s live stream is proof hard work and persistence pays off. Joined by producer Zaytoven on the piano and minimal backing tracks, Gucci’s three-song set is an understated celebration of southern hip-hop and Big Guwop’s infectious flow. A deserved return to the limelight.
Megan Thee Stallion
This one is for those who want to get up and dance. Performing as part of a special extended series of Tiny Desk Concerts, Houston MC Megan Thee Stallion goes HAM and positions herself as one of the brightest talents in rap with her electric performance. The usually twerk-happy Stallion leaves the stage antics at the door, allowing you to focus on her intricate wordplay and hyperactive flow. Highlights include Freak Nasty, Big Old Freak and personal favourite Hot Girl Summer.
It would be remiss not to include the pioneer of auto-tune. T-Pain’s 2014 concert is memorable for a variety of reasons - including being one of the first in the series to feature a major hip-hop artist - but for most, it’s discovering how incredible T-Pain’s voice is without auto-tune. Up Down (Do This All Day), an ode to strippers and liquor, has never sounded more heartfelt
Recorded just a month before his tragic passing, this is a heartbreaking reminder of how talented and special Mac Miller was. Debuting three new songs from his album Swimming, Miller’s in a playful mood as he jokes with his band and delivers emotive raps over jazzy instrumentation from his Thundercat-led backing band. A welcome reminder of one of rap’s good guys.
British rapper Little Simz graced the NPR offices soon after the release of her sophomore album, Stillness In Wonderland, for a mesmerising three-song set. Her lyricism comes to the fore on the dark themed Poison Ivy and No More Wonderland while she also demonstrates her less serious side on upbeat closer Picture Perfect.
There’s a reason this is the most viewed Tiny Desk Concert of all time. Multi-instrumentalist and vocalist Anderson .Paak brings the funk with this groove-inducing concert. Joined by his band The Free Nationals, the entire performance is magic, from carefree opener Come Down to silky set-closer Suede. It’s so good you wish it didn’t have to end.
It’s not just her incredible voice that makes Lizzo such a likeable artist, with her infectious personality really shining through during her appearance. Wearing a bright orange dress that’s as dynamic as her high notes and providing plenty of banter between songs, Lizzo wows with hits Cuz I Love You and Truth Hurts before switching to the flute for a joyous rendition of Juice.
Here’s one for the old school hip-hop heads. Rap pioneers Wu-Tang Clan (minus Method Man) grace the NPR studios for a stripped-back performance of classic tracks and solo hits. Backed by strings and RZA on the decks, it’s pure joy watching veterans Raekwon, Ghostface Killah and Inspectah Deck trade verses, with Ol’ Dirty Bastard’s son bringing the ruckus with his desk-standing cameo.