The NPR Tiny Desk – a Youtube music haven for all music lovers. Showcasing talents from niche contemporary genres, jazz rap, and even all the way to indie folk, it’s been over a decade since creator Bob Boilen started inviting artists to present stripped back performances at his ‘tiny’ yet widely iconic office desk. Performances have spanned from popular music artists like Taylor Swift, Harry Styles and Chance the Rapper, to up and coming artists like Tom Misch and Weyes Blood. However, there’s a clear list of the true top five performances. They embody authentic artistry and skilfully experiment with their own sound, pushing boundaries and peaking creatively.
Daniel Caesar (2018)
An emerging figure of the current neo-soul renaissance, Caesar wears no mask in this relaxed atmosphere. He stands freely by the piano accompanied by his harmonious six-piece band, smoothly and gracefully sliding into one of his early hits ‘Japanese Denim’. Eyes fully closed, occasionally sipping from a tea mug, he is at ease in his own world. The audience shares this comfort, completely enthralled by his powerful falsettos. Later on, R&B singer-songwriter H.E.R shares vocal duties with Caesar for ‘Best Part’ from his Grammy-nominated debut Freudian (2017). The song’s form of a delicate love letter with eloquent metaphors is refined by the pair’s natural dynamic. The simple and subtle composition is transformed into an equally alluring and intensifying duet. Definitely one of the most special guest appearances in the Tiny Desk series.
Anderson .Paak & The Free Nationals (2016)
This is the most viewed Tiny Desk concert to date – at almost 50 million views. It resembles what I like to call a ‘contained’ jam session between Paak and The Free Nationals, purely because the collaboration is so well conducted. The opener ‘Come Down’ takes an energetic life of its own, almost more dynamic and animated than its recorded counterpart from his highly-esteemed second album, Malibu (2016). The soulful duality between the drums and the electric guitar in the introduction of Malibu’s ‘Heart Don’t Stand A Chance’ offers a smooth and mellow interpretation. Sonically, it is cleverly crafted in that its focus on the light drumming neatly complements his sensual voice. Above all, what is most special about Paak’s performance is that his raw charisma and funk are even more potent in this intimate setting. We are fully immersed in the likes of his L.A. beachside utopia.
Erykah Badu (2018)
Contemporary soul artist Badu immediately captures the audience with her familiar soulful energy that has attracted her fans since 1997 when she released her debut album Baduizm. From the beginning of ‘Rimshot’, she effortlessly becomes the protagonist of the performance amidst the quietly passionate seven-piece jazz band that accompanies her. What is most impressive here is that her high elastic tone has barely aged after two decades. Through these velvety textures and her signature aesthetic of vibrant makeup and gold insect hair clips, we revisit her early days when she just started her mark as the queen of neo-soul. The ten minute, painfully-raw performance of ‘Green Eyes’ from her second album Mama’s Gun (2000) showcases her light and tonally beautiful voice. It is marked by sensitive harmonies that nicely reflect the song’s attempt to narrate the story of a reminiscent heartbreak in three stages. The playful humour in the repetitive lyrics “My eyes are green / ‘Cause I eat a lot of vegetables” are a true highlight as she sings them in acapella.
Lianne La Havas (2015)
The British singer-songwriter’s performance demonstrates her characteristic soft vulnerability as a core strength. Commencing with a lively and high-spirited rendition of ‘What You Don’t Do’ from Blood (2015), La Havas commands the audience with her harmonious timing and glowing positivity. She is utterly radiant and possesses a precise and mannered sensibility. ‘Unstoppable’ startlingly transforms from an ode to the combusting love affair to a complete declaration of determination and fulfilled self-love. Such gestures of personal power and gratification are methodically achieved by the warm and boasty textures in her defined voice. She lightly flickers her guitar, and allows every part of her performance to be heard in intricate detail. La Havas leaves us with a magnetic performance.
Tyler, The Creator (2018)
This was the first nighttime Tiny Desk, a request from Tyler himself. A request that is promisingly brought to life by the contrasting sapphire blue and fuschia lighting. The genre-defying artist impressively uses his band to full potential with melodic keys, steady acoustic bass and soulful backing singers that equally accompany his baritone rhymes. Both instrumentally and vocally, it sparkles. The half-improvised ‘Boredom’ from the critically-acclaimed album Flower Boy (2017), reveals his composed and laid-back nature. He rearranges it into an expressive jazz tune, which is similarly done in the set’s final song ‘Glitter’. Extending it from an initial melancholic groove to a tambourine-fueled jam session, ‘Glitter’ is gorgeously arranged and exudes a dreamy radiance. The finishing touch is Tyler’s witty banter in between songs “Excuse my voice, I can’t sing. But I don’t fucking care, because it feels good. Like a warm shower.”
Notable mentions: BADBADNOTGOOD, Mac Miller, King Krule, Saba, Courtney Barnett & Kurt Vile