The Tiny Desk Concert has come a long way from its origins in April 2008. With now over 800 artists having performed a short setlist live at NPR Music’s Washington, D.C. office behind Bob Boilen’s desk, the concerts have become an institution and career marker for established stars and newcomers alike.

An incredible range of musicians, in genre, popularity and feel, have been showcased within this intimate setting. The initial performance of Laura Gibson, the very first musician to appear behind the desk, has little production value, one microphone and only around 100,000 views – but the fundamental appeal of Tiny Desk Concerts is apparent from the very beginning. This unique spirit is epitomized by Gibson’s hauntingly beautiful rendition of “A Good Word, an Honest Man,” while audience participation, often a core part of Tiny Desk Concerts, is present during her final song, “Nightwatch.” In contrast, New York trio Moon Hooch, made up of saxophonists Michael Wilbur and Wenzl McGowen, as well as drummer James Muschler, give twelve minutes of pure breakneck instrumentality. Mixing jazz, electronica, and rock, these three play with reckless abandon; I dare you to watch this all-out performance, which opens with McGowen playing with a modified traffic cone attached to his saxophone, and not have fun.

Moon Hooch's set was a tour-de-forceYOUTUBE / NPR MUSIC

Yet while Tiny Desk is an enormous opportunity for relatively unknown artists like Moon Hooch, for megastars like California rapper Tyler, the Creator, it represents an opportunity to do something completely new and experiment with their sound. Tyler himself acknowledges the challenge of performing in such a setting, talking after his set about how he normally dislikes rap music performed with bands and was sceptical of replicating his beats on live instrumentation. Nevertheless, it’s clear how much fun he has during this performance and Tyler’s setlist, drawn from 2017’s Flower Boy, is one of the best from that year. Bathed in fuchsia, orange and blue lighting, a first for the Tiny Desk Concerts, his in-your-face style takes on a more relaxed, chilled-out mood that remains intrinsically Tyler, all the way down to making fun of the ‘nasty-ass’ tea NPR gave him.

Tyler, the Creator's evening performance had a gorgeous lighting setupYOUTUBE / NPR MUSIC

With such an impressive array of artists appearing at NPR’s offices, inevitably the live setting and lack of studio production impacts each artist’s unique sound differently. Some, like Noname, a smooth, down-to-earth rapper out of Chicago, suit it perfectly. Despite the more toned-down production, the core feeling of her 2016 album Telefone remains: sunny, gentle melodies interwoven with Noname’s calm, languid and often devastatingly sad verses. Similarly, in one of the most emotional Tiny Desk Concerts, Mac Miller’s lyrical skill, poignant delivery and easy-going manner match the laid-back atmosphere of Tiny Desk Concerts perfectly, making this last glimpse of an artist who died just a month later only more tragic.

“The power of a Tiny Desk Concert today [...] can not only transform an artist’s sound, but their popular conception.”

Meanwhile, others are completely transformed when they step behind the Tiny Desk. Flatbush Zombies, the rap trio of Meechy Darko, Zombie Juice and Erick Arc Elliott, are known for their high intensity and aggressive style, which I’ve experienced live on three occasions. However, their stripped-back, more subdued renditions of “when i’m gone,” “Palm Trees” and “Afterlife” all feel drastically different from the originals. Nowhere is this more evident than “Palm Trees,” an unapologetic stoner anthem first released in 2014 that morphs into a controlled, soft and almost groovy track; Elliott himself explained that while some might already know the song, ‘you’ve never heard it like this before.’

Mac Miller's concert was released only a month before his deathYOUTUBE / NPR MUSIC

Indeed, such is the power of a Tiny Desk Concert today that it can not only transform an artist’s sound, but their popular conception. Despite not quite reaching the heights of Anderson .Paak & The Free Nationals’ 69 million views, T-Pain’s 2014 performance is perhaps the most infamous. After rising to prominence in the late 2000s through his use of auto-tune and constant club hits, he became synonymous with heavy voice modulation. Yet, the T-Pain who appears at NPR’s Washington office, accompanied only by a keyboard, is not the one with whom music fans across the world are familiar. Party anthems like “Buy U A Drank (Shawty Snappin’)” are transformed into soulful, emotional ballads, and he demonstrates a more vulnerable side of himself, as well as his own incredible vocal talent. Although he hasn’t stopped using auto-tune, as shown by his 2019 album 1UP, this Tiny Desk Concert forever put to bed any suggestion T-Pain lacks genuine vocals or that his musical prowess is confined to mere club hits.


Mountain View

Alive 2007: How Daft Punk let their music do the talking

If you haven’t watched any Tiny Desk Concerts before, I urge you to. Start with one of those I’ve mentioned, an artist you’re already a fan of, or discover someone new by clicking on a random performance. I did the latter around this time last year, hearing Jacob Collier for the first time behind the Tiny Desk. This musical genius ends his magical set with “It Don’t Matter,” a song written especially for the concert – it ended up being my most listened to song of 2020. As for who I’d most like to see behind Boilen’s desk in the future, I can’t look beyond my artist of the decade, Kanye West. Not necessarily today’s Kanye, as his Sunday Services were effectively Tiny Desk Concerts with a gospel choir, but mid-2010s Kanye – I would love to see how tracks from 2013’s Yeezus or 2010’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy would change without their heavy production and complex backing tracks.

The ultimate magic of Tiny Desk Concerts is their ability to present a completely new side of the acts they feature. From niche indie bands to global superstars, the format of the series allows fans a fresh, stripped-back look at their favourite (or next favourite) artists.