It’s not often that you’d mention hip-hop and NPR in the same sentence. For lifelong fans of the culture, hip-hop represents a grassroots movement that stems from social activism, rule-breaking, and finding your inner strength. And while hip-hop may itself be a form of storytelling and street news, its origins in Bronx house parties and street corners feels far from National Public Radio. NPR, on the other hand, conjures up refined, newsroom reports, smug, progressive podcasts, and hip tote bags that cater to a mostly educated liberal audience. But looks can be deceiving. As NPR broadens its tent to showcase all corners of American culture, it’s added new programming like Latino USA and What’s Good with Stretch and Bobbito (itself a throwback to 1990s hip-hop radio). And, hip-hop hasn’t been left out. Nowhere is that more evident than NPR’s Tiny Desk Concerts.
The Tiny Desk Concert, which started at NPR Music a decade ago in 2008, has attracted a wide range of artists from folk singers to jazz musicians. A growing proportion of those artists hail from the hip-hop community, including emcees, singers, and producers. Surprisingly enough, it was T-Pain’s insanely good a capella performance that convinced me that Tiny Desk was something special. Since then, I’ve watched more and more Tiny Desk Concerts and have been consistently impressed by the emcees who have graced the small, creative stage in the NPR studios. And thus this blog post was created. Of the many acts I’ve seen, the seven here not only represent the best of Tiny Desk but also run the gamut of hip-hop’s increasingly diverse community. I specifically chose to include some artists that are a bit more under the radar than your Tyler the Creators or Chance the Rappers. So whether you’ve never seen a hip-hop Tiny Desk Concert or instead wanted to watch one of your favorite artists gently wreck the mic in a warm, inclusive setting, this post should be an excellent guide. Enjoy.
Saba’s performance on Tiny Desk is grippingly intimate and inviting. I first heard of Saba on his Comfort Zone mixtape but really watched him soar on The Bucket List Project. Despite the pervasive sadness that courses below the surface of his newest album Care for Me, his Tiny Desk performance feels more like a burden lifted than one carried. Similar to Goldlink’s performance, Saba reveals that it’s his father singing backup vocals while he also heaps praise on the musical collaborators that made Care for Me so immersive and eclectic. His Tiny Desk is truly one of the better snapshots of an emerging artist so do not sleep.
Since he dropped The God Complex in 2014, I’ve been following Goldlink’s progression. The elusive DMV artist perfected what he called “future bounce” and has since released a stream of incredible albums that have proved his lyrical chops. As more and more critics praise his insanely dope flow and fashion, it’s grown difficult for Goldlink to avoid the limelight. Fortunately for us, that resulted in a Tiny Desk performance. Even with a full ensemble of musicians and backup singers, they never quite eclipse Goldlink himself who remains the centerpiece of the set. As NPR writes, Goldlink approaches the concert much like a “family reunion” and regularly shares glimpses into the stories and influences that shape his tracks.
If there’s one thing you can count on, it’s Rapsody coming correct to every stage she graces. Even before the YouTube video for her Tiny Desk performance appeared, I could already sense that she would drop one of the best hip-hop performances period. With the expert production stylings of 9th Wonder and her band, Rapsody brings her heart and soul into an interactive and stirring Tiny Desk performance. She’s been grinding for a minute now and I’ll admit it feels good to see her success pay off. But, of course, I’m biased. Rapsody has long been a favorite of mine ever since she dropped The Idea of Beautiful back in 2012. On NPR, she brings the lyrical heat for her opening track and then shifts into beautiful and incredible storytelling on her song “The Man”. It’s a moving piece discussing the difficulties of too many men who grow up in broken homes, and it’s well-complemented by the wailing of her saxophonist. After all, it goes one time for love, and two times for peace. Check it out.
I’ll admit that I was sleeping hard and hadn’t actually heard of Ill Camille until I watched her Tiny Desk set. That’s a real shame since she’s pumped out several releases even before her critically acclaimed 2017 sophomore album Heirloom. The Los Angeles rapper’s lyrics on Heirloom dive deep into family roots and generational baggage, and she navigates from soulful reflection on being a female emcee into hard-spitting, good old-fashioned fun. There is a remarkable confidence that Ill Camille exudes through every second of her debut NPR performance. She’s an expert storyteller and seamlessly moves through tracks that interrogate the role of gender, validate a woman’s self-worth, and address the challenges of the hip-hop industry. Once you pair her microphone prowess with the jazzy vibes from her crew of musicians, well, you’ve got a pretty dope performance on your plate.
Oddisee is a producer at heart. His intricate knowledge of music, ability to compose, and complex layering of musical samples have consistently helped him stand apart. He has channeled much of this energy into capturing a varied range of emotions and sentiments as he comes up in the movement. But he is also an incredibly dope emcee. The three times I’ve seen Oddisee live, I’ve always been impressed by his constantly evolving persona. The first time he performed most of his first album, People Hear What They See, with a live band. His subsequent performance featured a DJ, but you could tell his real passion is with his cast of musicians, which he reintroduced on the third performance. His Tiny Desk Concert is a more stripped down and acapella version of Oddisee, and yet, the musicality and passion for his work are only more amplified. It’s all love with Oddisee. Check it out.
Out of coincidence, I watched Mac Miller’s Tiny Desk Concert the night before he passed away. I was struck immediately by how musically versatile Mac had become, singing over his tracks and demonstrating the full range of his musical talent. Always goofy, occasionally shy, and surprisingly forthright, Mac Miller comes correct on his Tiny Desk Concert. His undeniable chemistry with Thundercat and his playful banter with the audience underscores just how well respected and liked he was by all. Mac clearly had undergone a serious transformation as an artist, combining some of his heady lyricism from earlier albums with a more jazzy and reflective outlook on Swimming. Others clearly took notice. I was most struck by Talib Kweli’s tribute to Mac Miller since I never realized the two of them had collaborated. On his Instagram, Talib waxed nostalgic and said “Every time I saw Mac on the road or at a party…it was always was so much love and respect. He was pure artist. Pure ambition. Pure heart.” Rest in power Mac.
“Let’s heal the world guys-with vulnerability,” says Noname as she nears the end of her Tiny Desk set. There could not be a more fitting theme for Noname’s debut album Telefone or her performance on NPR. Although unfamiliar to some, Noname quietly but surely built a reputation for herself working with Chance the Rapper and other Chicago emcees. On Telefone, Noname’s vulnerable and introspective poetry addresses many of the personal and community traumas she encounters regularly in her hometown of Chicago (read In Steady Rotation’s review of Telefone here). On Tiny Desk, Noname continues that vulnerability with her self-described “scramble think”, which is a sort of word association that finds its roots in spoken word and stream of consciousness. Thanks to Noname’s band ensemble that plays gently in the background, Noname’s lyrics and vulnerability are front and center for the listener. Check it out.