When Buddy, a preacher's son from Compton, turns to me with eyebrows raised on the elevator ride inside NPR's corporate headquarters, it's hard to tell if the question that comes next is in preparation for his performance or pure provocation.
"Can we smoke in here?!" he asks with a grin that elicits stifled laughter from his bandmates and a few newsroom journalists along for the ride. It's a blunt request, even from a self-professed "weed connoisseur," and it kicks off one of the most dramatic Tiny Desks in recent memory.
If 2018 signaled the year of disruption in rap — with a shortlist of vets and newcomers trolling their way to the top of the charts — it was dominated by a groundswell of emerging voices who found more creative means to make their mark. Buddy's anticipated full-length debut Harlan & Alondra, named for the cross streets where he lived as a child, placed him among the better company (and on NPR's Best Rap Albums Of 2018). The same soulful hybrid of rapping and singing that compelled Pharrell to sign him as a teenager found Buddy stretching L.A. hip-hop beyond its typical gangsta narrative, while dancing with his dreams and shaking off his demons.
But sometimes being a nonconformist works both ways. So when Buddy proceeded to fire up a blunt midway through his set, we had to stop the show and ask him to put it out before re-recording his song, "Hey Up There." (Smoking is not allowed on NPR property.) The performance was still lit, owing in part to Buddy's Baptist bona fides and his hood's close proximity to Hollywood. He grew up a singing in the choir and watching his dad work the crowd from the pulpit. He's also an alumni of actress Wendy Raquel Robinson's Amazing Grace Conservatory, an L.A. program known for steeping inner-city kids in the performing arts. Between the two, he earned his dramatic chops early. "I'm so used to being in front of an audience of people," he tells me, "just doing my thing and not really caring about it." He's definitely not afraid of the camera. In fact, he's one of the rare Tiny Desk guests who stares directly into it throughout much of his set, performing for the camera in the most literal sense.
While onstage drama kept Buddy a safe distance from the streets, he still experienced the kind of coming-of-age struggles that shaped his personal and political outlook. On "Real Life S**t," the opening song on his album and the last song in his Tiny Desk set, he conveys that reality with raw sentiment for the sitting President in lyrics straight from the record. It's that freedom of expression, from unbridled joy to middle-finger attitude, that makes him a provocateur in the purest sense. "If you don't like it, you weird," he tells me about his music before acknowledging the unintended irony behind his characterization: "Yeah, I am weird. So I guess being weird doesn't matter."
"Trouble On Central"
"Hey Up There"
"Real Life S**t"
Producers: Rodney Carmichael, Morgan Noelle Smith; Creative Director: Bob Boilen; Audio Engineer: Josh Rogosin; Videographers: Morgan Noelle Smith, Kaylee Domzalski, Maia Stern, Kara Frame; Production Assistant: Brie Martin; Photo: Cameron Pollack/NPR