When it came to performances, what the 2016 MTV Video Music Awards lacked in quantity they more than made up for in quality. In fact, it’s hard to remember a VMAs where so many of the performances were so damn good. That’s why when ranking this year’s worst and best, the worst is really more like “the least good.”
With that in mind, this is our take on the 2016 VMAs performances, from least memorable to most astonishing.
Future nabbed history’s most decorated Olympian for his VMAs introduction, and for good reason — his “Stick Talk” helped hype Michael Phelps to victory at the Olympics in Rio. As for Future’s performance, while it was a solid delivery of the instant classic “Fuck Up Some Commas,” his low energy stage presence and minimal choreography place it at the bottom of our list. We’re not saying we didn’t like it, but when every other 2016 VMAs performance was an A or A-, this B+ performance was out least favorite.
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While “Closer” is a killer combination of two rising talents, it didn’t sound quite right at the VMAs. The Chainsmokers’ vocal portion of the song was a little weak, and the level of showmanship could have used a little bit of a visual boost — especially considering the staggering level of artistry Beyonce brought just before they took the stage.
Yes, Britney was lip-syncing, but her VMAs performance of “Make Me” was as beguiling as the song itself. It opened with Britney’s silhouette performing behind a glowing panel while massive, shadowy arms reach for her, trying to grab her without ever quite succeeding. After G-Eazy came out to deliver his verse, she returned the favor by singing the Bebe Rexha hook on his hit “Me, Myself & I” (while crawling under his legs) before returning back to “Make Me.” A solid VMAs return for Britney, whose 2001 VMAs moment is arguably the show’s most iconic performance of all time.
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Two years after taking the stage together for “Bang Bang” at the 2014 VMAs, Ariana Grande and Nicki Minaj were back together for another VMAs victory this year. Turning out their reggae-tinged “Side to Side” from Grande’s Dangerous Woman album, they augmented the laid-back jam with some highly energy choreography. Ariana and her dancers pumped the exercise bikes (OK Go would be proud) at the start of the song, after which Ari hopped off to lift some weights and hit the pommel horse in a nod to the recent Olympics. Even with her back stretched over the horse, she still hit every note. Minaj didn’t do any cardio or gymnastics during her portion of the song, but she certainly brought the attitude as per usual.
Even vegetarians had to be digging Nick Jonas’ “Bacon” during the VMAs. The smooth crooner took the VMAs’ cameras outside of Madison Square Garden and through a tour of midtown NYC diner Tick Tock. Jonas served his “Bacon” to a restaurant full of patrons, including Joe Jonas and DNCE. Outside the diner on 34th & 8th, Ty rapped his verse while lowriders bounced to infinity and beyond. Jonas gets bonus points for the inventiveness of his performance.
Rihanna was given the Michael Jackson Video Vanguard Award at the VMAs by Drake. But instead of delivering one lengthy performance of career highlights, Rih split her VMAs performance into four parts, each one focusing on the different sonic palettes in her discography. She was joined by a massive troupe of dancers for her dancehall-centric segment (“Work,” “Rude Boy” and “What’s My Name”), but the absolute stunner was the final performance, where she donned an elegant old school Hollywood gown to slay “Stay,” “Diamonds” and “Love on the Brain.” Her vocals, which are sometimes under-appreciated by critics and even fans, were gorgeous and impressive, reminding everyone that beyond the chart-toppers and DGAF behavior, there’s an astonishing voice that propelled her to where she is now.
Given that we didn’t even know Beyonce was performing until this weekend, we weren’t expecting a full 15-minute visual statement from the Lemonade mastermind. But Bey gave us nearly half the visual album, augmenting her songs with visuals different from her 2016 tour. “Pray You Catch Me” was especially affecting. While singing the harrowing, mournful song, her backup dancers dropped to the ground after getting hit with red spotlights, as if being gunned down one by one. “Hold Up” — featuring a brief breakdown of the 4 track “Countdown” — was another visually stunning moment, with Beyonce turning a baseball bat on the VMAs camera itself.
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The cinematography of Beyonce’s performance was unlike anything you see at an awards show, too. Instead of sharp realism, the camera’s focus was soft, gauzy and otherwordly, bringing to mind televised disco performances from the ’70s or even the original Battlestar Galactica. After “Sorry” and “Don’t Hurt Yourself,” she closed with — what else — “Formation.” While VMA medleys have run longer in the past, they never felt this fully realized. Simply put, Beyonce brought capital ‘A’ Art to the 2016 VMAs.