Live music has the ability to make you feel invincible. Whether bangers or mellow joints, old classics or new experiments, it all sounds different when the artist is standing 10 feet in front of you. The inherent intimacy of a live setting can enhance the music almost as much as a new arrangement, an alchemy that’s usually worth the beer spilled on your shoes.
Sometimes, an arena is required to provide this experience. Sometimes, all you need is a tiny desk.
Every time a new Tiny Desk Concert pops up online, this is the experience I seek. NPR’s online video series revolves around acoustic live performances from artists in the vein of MTV’s Unplugged, all done from behind the desk of All Songs Considered host Bob Boilen. Boilen and NPR Music editor Stephen Thompson started the series in 2008 after they weren’t able to hear Laura Gibson's vocals over a raucous live crowd. What started as a joke about Gibson performing at Boilen’s desk was the seed that birthed the first ever Tiny Desk concert. They were chasing the same feeling.
It took the pair a while to fully embrace hip-hop and R&B, but they broke that streak—and the internet at large—with T-Pain’s 2014 Tiny Desk, which included hits like “Buy U A Drank” and “Up Down (We Can Do This All Day).” The performance was jaw-dropping enough to make up for the sea of backhanded compliments that came from people unaccustomed to an Auto-Tune-less Teddy.
Since then, Boilen’s desk has been graced by soulful acoustic sets from the likes of Anderson .Paak—who is tied with Pain for the most-viewed Tiny Desk of all time, with 11.5 million views—Tyler, The Creator, Chance The Rapper, Oddisee and Noname, as well unique performances from DJ Premier & The Badder Band, Run The Jewels and Gucci Mane. They’re all unified by their intimacy and their adventurousness, a live show stripped down to the essentials that reveal new layers to songs we know and love.
2018 is only a month old, but I’m already thinking about who I want to see in that corner office next. In no particular order, here are some suggestions.
Mississippi’s pride and joy is known for his trunk-rattling bass just as much as he is for introspective lyrics. K.R.I.T. ventured even further into live music territory on last year’s masterful double album 4Eva Is a Mighty Long Time, exploring his hedonistic rapper side (Big K.R.I.T.) before diving into his mind off the clock (Justin Scott).
K.R.I.T.’s lushest arrangements this side of “Soul Food” are housed within this album’s 22 tracks, so setting K.R.I.T. with some keyboards and a bassist at the Tiny Desk would make for a thumping and thoughtful good time. Imagine if he got Raphael Saddiq or Robert Glasper on the phone.
Ideal Setlist: “Aux Cord,” “Keep the devil Off,” “Everlasting”
Take Me Apart is a trip through the death and rebirth of love dominated by spacious production and Kelela’s wispy vocals. She doesn’t so much float through the songs as she does flow through them like a current, the ghost in this R&B/electronic machine reclaiming love on her very Black terms.
Kelela often performs live with backing vocalists and sparse samplers, a dark blue quasar of a performance that would blow Tiny Desk away. Limiting Kelela to a performance with only background singers could make for an experience that fans would look forward to ripping them apart.
Ideal Setlist: “Enough,” “LMK,” “Truth Or Dare”
Vince Staples’ unapologetic approach to music and conversation is refreshing, if not always entertaining. The ear-shattering garage and techno on Big Fish Theory was a sonic departure from the sticky skeletal synths of Summertime ‘06, but they’re both tied together by Vince’s deadpan reporting from the frontlines of tongue-in-cheek Black angst.
An album as loud and abrasive as Big Fish Theory might not seem like Tiny Desk material, but Vince has built a career on subverting expectations. With a keyboard, some bass and sampler backing him, and an assist from frequent collaborator Kilo Kish, Vince could rattle the NPR offices even with some of the album's more intimate cuts—and he'd have a lot of fun while doing it.
Ideal Setlist: “Big Fish,” “745,” “Samo”
I see flowers whenever I listen to SZA’s GRAMMY-nominated Ctrl. Outside of the earthy textures of the music, the TDE songstress blossoms in front of our eyes after years of hard work (and album delays), bringing her serene ordered chaos to the world.
There are so many sounds on Ctrl that deserve the justice of an intimate setting. Get SZA an acoustic guitar to belt over, some steaming keyboards in the back and some backup vocalists and watch her bloom like never before.
Ideal Setlist: Songs: “Drew Barrymore,” “The Weekend,” “20 Something”
An ear for melody helps when Auto-Tune is such an important part of your brand, and Future’s ear continues to push his raspy voice to new heights. The prolific ATLien dropped not one but two full-lengths within a week of each other in 2017, including the lovelorn R&B odyssey HNDRXX.
As style oozes out of Future’s double cup, I can perfectly imagine his Tiny Desk. He's wearing a white hat and a matching t-shirt, sitting on a stool ready to vent about love lost. It could reveal the layer hiding behind those shades.
Ideal Setlist: “Incredible,” “Neva Missa Lost,” “Sorry”
Every member of the Wu-Tang Clan has a flair for the dramatic, but Ghostface goes above and beyond. His stories are always grand in scope, all pushed through by his booming, nasally voice. A man who raps with a solid gold bird clipped to his arm better have some of the hardest rhymes in his back pocket.
Ghost has worked with live bands before, particularly with composer Adrian Younge on the 12 Reasons To Die series and with BadBadNotGood on the greyscale Sour Soul. Give Ghost a mini-orchestra and room to spit old and new material, and in no time Pretty Toney will be adding another notch to his belt.
Ideal Setlist: “Nuggets Of Wisdom,” “Rise Of The Black Suits,” “Nutmeg”
Lil Uzi Vert
Lil Uzi Vert is a walking WarHead. His music is candy-colored if you can get past the angsty bite on the surface. The swirling emotions keep a project like Luv Is Rage 2 as light as a feather taped to a bright neon bowling ball.
I know what you’re thinking; we already heard a terrible acoustic version of “XO TOUR Lif3e” at the GRAMMYs last year. So let’s just ditch the guitars and the big hit single and give him a chance to re-contextualize some less popular album cuts, with warm synths and background coos.
Ideal Setlist: “The Way Life Goes,” “Feelings Mutual,” “Dark Queen”
dvsn (Daniel Daley and Nineteen85)
Daniel Daley of dvsn lives and loves in technicolor. The sounds that he and producer Nineteen85 conjure on their sophomore album Morning After evokes the pink and purple shades found on the album cover; ballads for all that the light touches when texts with exes give way to daybreak.
Most Tiny Desk concerts benefit from some sort of vocal backing, but dvsn doesn’t need outside help to skew intimate. Give 85 his board and Daley a baby grand piano and the sepia-toned sparks will fly.
Ideal Setlist: “Keep Calm,” “Think About Me,” “Hallucinations”
If you had told me four years ago that Mac Miller would release an album like The Divine Feminine, I would’ve smirked and fallen back into Watching Movies With the Sound Off. The path traveled from muted cinema and revealing his many faces to the funk/soul odyssey of Divine has been a fulfilling trip—as much for a newly sober Mac as it is for his fans.
I can’t tell you how long I’ve wanted to hear The Divine Feminine played live with a band. Upbeat bops and smoldering grooves with backup from NJOMZA and a quick trip to the past behind the Tiny Desk? Sign. Me. Up.
Ideal Setlist: “Dang!,” “Planet God Damn,” “100 Grandkids”
I’ll admit that my recent history with Cudi is brief. While I hopped off the bandwagon following Man On The Moon, that doesn’t mean that my appreciation for his voice, which shimmers like a diamond when it's at its peak, has lessened. Cudi continues to inspire a generation to be themselves through the worst the world has to offer, and his latest album, Passion, Pain & Demon Slayin’, is no exception.
Much of Kid Cudi’s live show is built around spectacle, even though his songs can be insular and intimate. Behind the Tiny Desk, onlookers would enter galactic on a smaller scale, finding their way through Cudi’s world in a new light. This is also just an excuse to hear some sort of acoustic rendering of a Pharrell beat.
Ideal Setlist: “Day ‘n Nite,” “Surfin’,” “Maniac”