Particularly within the past 12 months, NPR's Tiny Desk concert series has done a phenomenal job of highlighting sonic and cultural diversity within Black music. From trap-inspired beats blended with live instrumentation, to London emcees, Nigerian crooners and Black American gospel singers, all corners of the diaspora were represented on NPR’s flagship series.
With 2019 coming to an end, here’s our list of the 19 best Tiny Desk concerts this year.
Tobe Nwigwe is in a lane of his own in this performance. The Texas lyricist “murders every beat that they gather on the plate” during his delivery of “Houston Tribute.” In between songs, Nwigwe shared moments with his Nigerian parents and encouraged listeners to pursue their dreams even if that means having to subvert expectations.
It was a family affair at NPR, with the rapper’s beautiful muse and adolescent daughter within arm's reach throughout his five-song medley. Nwigwe’s rhymes were complemented by vocals from background singers Madeline Edwards, Luke Whitney and David Michael Wyatt.
Soulful as ever, Lizzo took us to church during her Tiny Desk performance, singing affirmations of self-love and growth. Before opening with "Cuz I Love You,” she earnestly asks the office, “How we feeling at this tiny a** desk?” The Grammy-nominated and Soul Train Award-winning singer was so moved by the energy in the room, she took a moment to hug herself during “Truth Hurts.” And, of course, Sasha Flute made a guest appearance during "Juice."
The British songstress took us on a galactic journey with Saturn, which she described as an album about a transitioning stage of your life, "leaving adolescence and going into adulthood." She opened with “If You Ever,” followed by her 2015 breakthrough ballad “Bad Blood.” Between her angelic voice and lyrics, Nao's growth is evident on “Orbit" and “Make It Out Alive.”
Leslie Odom Jr.
You most definitely remember Leslie Odom Jr.'s face and bright smile from past seasons of Law & Order: SVU, and now NPR’s Tiny Desk. Odom’s jam session featured three songs from his album, Mr, featuring ballads like “Cold,” “Foggy” and the happy bop “Hummingbird,” tested and approved by his 2-year-old daughter.
Masked up, Leikeli47 is out here getting to the “Money,” but she made time to stop by Tiny Desk to bare her soul. The dynamic songstress takes flight with the TSA Band — with Timmy Manson Jr. on drums, Justus West on guitar, Simba Scott on bass and Portier on keys. “Let's Go Get Stoned (Portier's Vibe)” was the highlight of the set. The Brooklyn native also performed “Girl Blunt,” featured on Issa Rae's Insecure Season 1 soundtrack.
The spirit of Cab Calloway lives on through singer/multi-instrumentalist Masego. That lineage is apparent in Masego’s vocals, personality and captivating stage presence. He describes his musical style as "TrapHouseJazz," which feels accurate per the emotional chords and contagious ad-libs native to his sound. The Jamaican-born musician opened his session with a parody starring social media personality and comedian Renny, who pretended to play the saxophone on “Tadow.”
Tasha Cobbs Leonard
Throughout her performance, the graceful gospel singer Tasha Cobbs Leonard took some time to preach to the Tiny Desk audience. “Sometimes people will try and speak things over you that God did not design for your life,” the vocalist explained before performing “You Know My Name.”
“And no matter what they've said about you,” she continues, “He knows who He called you to be and what your purpose is on Earth.” Leonard closed out her performance with the country-gospel song “The River of the Lord.”
Born David Hynes (but also known as Devonte Hynes), singer-songwriter-producer Blood Orange has been churning out hits for years, having worked with the likes of Mariah Carey, Solange Knowles, A$AP Rocky and more. This mesmerizing performance featured a spoken word interlude by poet Ashley Haze in which she thanked Missy Elliot for helping her understand what it means to “be a woman playing a man's game.”
Lucky Daye may have brought the largest band we’ve ever seen on Tiny Desk. His 10-person group included background singers, horns, keys, a smiling drummer and his producer, D Mile, on bass. From the funky rhythm and blues streets of New Orleans, Daye performed smooth singles such as “Roll Some Mo,” “Misunderstood” and “Late Night,” all from his Grammy-nominated debut album, Painted.
Freddie Gibbs and Madlib
Earlier this year, rapper Freddie Gibbs dropped Bandana, his collaborative project with legendary producer Madlib. The Indiana rapper has ambitiously referred to the LP as “the album of the year.” From the moment Gibbs opened his Tiny Desk concert with Bandana’s “Education,” it became clear he’d use NPR’s platform to affirm that claim. New York-based soul band El Michels Affair accompanied both Gibbs and Madlib for this jazzy performance.
Buddy grew up the son of a preacher in South Central LA. That hereditary knack for crowd control is on full display during his Tiny Desk appearance. In a bold yellow durag, the rapper-singer reflects on his childhood while performing “Trouble on Central,” and he proudly raps “f**k Donald Trump” during “Real Life S**t.” Buddy’s songs resonate with messages of hope, inspiration and Black excellence.
After Future was a no-show, Atlanta producer and trap veteran Zaytoven delivered an impromptu Tiny Desk performance, featuring instrumentals from his earlier hits with the Beast Mode rapper, such as “Lay Up” and “Peacoat.” This performance is a true reflection of Zaytoven's bass-heavy production, often paired with distinctive flourishes inherited from his time spent as a church organist.
His 36-minute set reflects his influence and musical genius, as the singer-songwriter has penned countless hits throughout his 30-year career. His friend and budding soul singer Lucky Daye also made a guest appearance, performing “Love Too Much” and “Call” from Painted, and backed Saadiq on “Be Here.” Inspired by HBCU marching bands, Saadiq closed his session with a tuba player for a rendition of “Still Ray.”
Guitarist Elijah Rawk and bassist Bari Bass stood out wearing sweaters that matched the color of their instruments. At different points, the attention switched between Thrie's amazing vocals and Braxton Cook's fantastic performance on the saxophone.
It’s been suggested that Ari Lennox is our modern-day Erykah Badu. After the 26-year-old’s soulful Tiny Desk performance, that argument is hard to deny. In the above clip, the Shea Butter Baby singer gracefully sways in a gorgeous dress, with her powerful vocals, candid humor, witty personality and resonant lyrics all on display.
Megan Thee Stallion
“Now, don't be scared to get ratchet,” the hot girl head coach cautioned the Tiny Desk audience. Megan Thee Stallion brought her raunchy lyrics and shit-talking to NPR with Phony Ppl as her live band, and concert-goers loved every minute of it. Her charismatic performance began with what has become her signature opener: “Realer,” from her award-winning mixtape, Fever.
In between songs like “Freak Nasty,” “Big Ole Freak” and her platinum single “Cash S**t,” the Houston hottie told a few jokes and was touched up by her stylist, EJ. Phony Ppl paired their jazzy vocals and percussion with Meg's energetic raps, in addition to premiering an unreleased collaboration, “F**kin Around.”