The 33rd annual MTV Video Music Awards are always an opportunity for WTF moments. With all the memorable performances during the VMAs, Beyoncé, Rihanna and Kanye West were the clear winners of the 2016 MTV Video Music Awards, with their collective presence breathing life into an epic, nearly three-hour show that managed to feel both unplanned as well was scripted.
Tennis star Serena Williams, who is featured in Beyonce’s video for “Sorry,” introduced the singer, who took the stage with a crew of dancers for an incredible 16-minute performance. At the beginning, they were wearing white, floor-length, frilly outfits for “Pray to Catch Me.” With each tap of the drum, dancers fell down in clouds of red as if they had been shot dead. Bey continued to strip away the costumes and add to the fierceness. In “Hold Up,” she grabbed a baseball bat, swung it into the camera, then slammed her heel down right in front of the cracked lens. A triumphant “Sorry” led into a blaring “Don’t Hurt Yourself” in which Beyoncé tore into the song’s defiant taunts to an unfaithful spouse. “If y’all came to slay, sing along with me,” Bey told the audience at the start of an anthemic “Formation.” At the end, she sat in a ring of fire, grieving that she had no worlds left to conquer, while her squad of dancers formed a woman symbol on the stage. It was a performance that will go down in history as one of the most fantastic live performances on television.
Kanye West was given four minutes to use for whatever he wanted. While expectations for a political manifesto or stream of consciousness “riff” on fame were high, he used the time to mention murders in Chicago, his beef with Taylor Swift and a list of “greats” that culminated in his own inclusion. The big news was the premiere of his sweaty, “Flashdance”-inspired video for “Fame,” starring Teyana Taylor and her husband, the NBA player Iman Shumpert.
For Britney Spears’ much-anticipated return to the VMAs, she performed her new single “Make Me” from her recently released seventh album Glory with rapper and collaborator G-Eazy. Britney shone onstage in a skimpy, sparkly gold unitard (while her dancers wore black-and-white outfits) and suggestively danced around the rapper for a fiery performance.
“She’s someone I’ve been in love with since I was 22 years old,” Drake told the crowd when he took the stage in a tux to present his friend and collaborator Rihanna with the Michael Jackson Video Vanguard Award. “She’s one of my best friends in the world. All my adult life I’ve looked up to her even though she’s younger than me. She’s a living, breathing legend in our industry.” It was a touching tribute and sparked a renewed love affair with the two talented entertainers.
Rihanna, the VMAs star award recipient, celebrated her lifetime-achievement Moonman with not one performance but a total of four genre-spanning medleys. The Barbadian pop singer opened the show decked out in pink (with a squad of pink-clad dancer) for a series of fast-paced, beat-heavy hits from her catalog that included brief snippets of “Don’t Stop the Music” and “Only Girl In The World” followed by sections of “We Found Love in a Hopeless Place” and “Where Have You Been.” For her second performance, Rihanna led her crew in a dancehall suite that doubled as her homage to Caribbean music, performing parts of “Rude Boy” and “What’s My Name?” that segued into her 2016 smash “Work.” Her third medley — which included “Needed Me,” the banger-brooder “Pour It Up,” the vengeful “Bitch Better Have My Money” — had her dancers wearing black T-shirts with RIHANNA in a death-metal-styled logo. She returned for her final performance sequence by focusing on the ballads in her catalog — “Stay,” “Love on the Brain,” “Diamonds” — which she brought to life with the help of a string section and several horn players — giving an elegant, dramatic conclusion to the omnibus of an evening.