Beyoncé, Rihanna and Kanye West owned the 2016 MTV Video Music Awards, their collective presence breathing life into a grandiose, nearly three-hour show that managed to feel as scattershot as it was scripted.
Rihanna opened the show with a hot pink flash, blazing through four of her biggest dance hits: “Don’t Stop the Music,” “Only Girl in the World,” We Found Love” and “Where Have You Been.” The pop star would perform three more genre-specific medleys throughout the night, throwing an impromptu block party during a reggae and dancehall set that included “Rude Boy,” “What’s My Name” and “Work,” and tinging her trap hits “Needed Me,” “Pour It Up” and “Bitch Better Have My Money” with a gothic psychedelia. For her grand finale, the singer took the stage in a billowing gown and performed the hit ballads, “Stay,” “Diamonds” and “Love on the Brain.”
The performances culminated with Rihanna accepting the Michael Jackson Video Vanguard Award, presented by Drake. “Some artists need to play a character to achieve success,” Drake said. “Some need to downplay their own natural instincts to blend in. She succeeds by doing something that no one in this music industry does, which is being herself.” And fittingly, Rihanna dedicated her trophy to her home country, Barbados, telling the crowd, “It’s my family’s, it’s my fans’, it’s my country’s, the Caribbean as a whole, it’s women, it’s black women.”
Rihanna’s presence throughout the night lent some continuity to the 2016 VMAs, which wasn’t anchored by a single host, but a trio of MCs: DJ Khaled, Jay Pharoah and Nicole Byer. Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele also provided snarky running commentary throughout the night, in character as Twitter loudmouths @LizardSheeple and @TheShamester.
Ariana Grande and Nicki Minaj recreated their new “Side to Side” video with a performance that turned the VMA stage into a day-glo gym complete with sculpted weightlifters and spin riders. Future tore through a gritty rendition of “Fuck Up Some Commas,” Britney Spears and G-Eazy delivered their new track, “Make Me,” the Chainsmokers and Halsey grooved through “Closer” and Nick Jonas and Ty Dolla $ign served up their hit, “Bacon,” from a diner across the street from Madison Square Garden.
Beyoncé, unsurprisingly, delivered the most captivating set of the night, unleashing an epic recreation of Lemonade that included “Pray You Catch Me,” “Hold Up,” “Sorry,” a fiery “Don’t Hurt Yourself” and a cathartic “Formation.” The final shot featured Beyoncé standing amongst all her dancers, who laid on the stage in the shape of the Venus symbol. Afterwards, Key and Peele declared, in between rapturous crying jags, that all tweets were over.
But the VMA spectacle was ultimately rather straightforward, unmarred by the feuds, reconciliations and proclamations that marked last year’s show. Even Kanye West — who was given five minutes to say whatever he wanted — was subdued as he discussed an array of topics by way of introducing his scintillating “Fade” video. In one emblematic moment, West commented on immigration, slavery and the melting pot ideal (“We came over in the same boat, now we all in the same bed — well maybe different boats, but you know”), touched on Chicago’s murder rate and made a cheeky, if not innocuous, quip about his phone call to Taylor Swift about “Famous.”
The MC also discussed his creative motives and idols, drawing parallels between systemic oppression and the “older rich people, aka white people” who tell him not to compare himself to Steve Jobs or Walt Disney. “My friend told me there’s three keys to keeping people impoverished,” West remarked. “‘Taking away their esteem, taking away their resources and taking away their role models.’ My role models are artist merchants: Truman, Ford, Hughes, Disney, Jobs, West.”
The 2016 VMAs as a whole resembled West’s freewheeling speech. Drake was unable to accept his Best Hip-Hop Video Moonman because he was, as Puff Daddy said, “stuck in traffic.” Pharoah, impersonating Jay Z, freestyled about getting his prostate checked and DJ Khaled not-so-subtly hocked Air Jordans. But Alicia Keys also recited a poem honoring the 53rd anniversary of Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, while Beyoncé walked the red carpet with the mothers of Trayvon Martin, Oscar Grant, Eric Garner and Mike Brown. And for every all-star musician presenting an award, there was an Olympic athlete — or Jimmy Fallon impersonating Ryan Lochte and joking, “”Anyway, who had the best video of the year? … I couldn’t tell you even if there was a gun to my head. Which there isn’t.”
As for the awards, Beyoncé took home Video of the Year for “Formation,” as well as Best Female Video for “Hold Up.” Joe Jonas and DNCE took home the fan-voted Best New Artist, Calvin Harris shared his Best Male Video trophy with Rihanna for “This Is What You Came For” and Fifth Harmony and Ty Dolla $ign won Best Collaboration. A full winners list is available here.
Prior to the main event, DJ Khaled hosted a pre-show extravaganza filled with red carpet interviews alongside performances by Alessia Cara, Lukas Graham and Jidenna.