It was the Rihanna Show, Kanye made a statement, Britney made a comeback, and Taylor Swift was present in absentia.

By Hayden Wright

The Video Music Awards are MTV’s last great link to Total Request Live and wall-to-wall video days of yore, but as recently as last year, they didn’t quite look like themselves. A high-concept, Miley Cyrus-hosted show appeared to privilege social media over the year’s biggest videos (and stars) themselves. Producers seemed more intent on creating animated GIFs than unforgettable cultural moments in the tradition of Madonna and Kanye West. It was easy to forget that the VMAs are music’s raciest, most anything-can-happen night of the year. GIFs go viral for a day; Taylor Swift beef lasts forever.

In that respect, 2016 marked a return to form: Pop’s biggest acts at the height of their game delivered outsized, provocative performances worthy of the VMA stage. Sure, the red carpet was populated by famous YouTubers and bubbling-under stars, but when the lights of Madison Square Garden go up and present a blank canvas to Rihanna, Kanye West and Britney Spears, it’s a show about icons. Beyoncé owned the stage for fifteen uninterrupted minutes and won Video of the Year. Rihanna ruled the night, Kanye made a statement, Britney made a comeback and—even in absentia—Taylor Swift was everywhere.

Here are some highlights in case you missed it:

  • Rihanna nailed the opener. To kick the show off, Rihanna proved why she heartily deserves the Michael Jackson Video Vanguard Award. The Queen of Singles performed a medley: “Don’t Stop The Music,” “Only Girl in the World,” and the ever-transcendent “We Found Love.” The performance featured the most impressive, ambitious choreography of Rihanna’s career—complete with sporty get-ups and Janet Jackson precision.
  • The Kim-Taylor joke. Unofficial hosts Key and Peele posing as some some “Twitter influencers” dubbed Kim Kardashian the star of Law and Order: SVU (Snapchat Victims Unit). FIRE. Taylor’s not here but she’s with us in spirit. Also—the Key and Peele premise gently ribs the pitfalls of last year’s show. What are influencers, anyway?
  • Ari and Nicki slay in tandem. Ariana Grande and Nicki Minaj performed “Side to Side” from Grande’s Dangerous Woman. Imagine attending a Soul Cycle class in the middle of Drake’s video for “Hotline Bling,” and Ariana Grande is your instructor…that’s basically what the art director had in mind. Nicki arrives with her Crossfit crew and Ariana sings the roof off, per usual. At this point she’s just showing off.
  • Calvin Harris…er, Rihanna…er, Taylor Swift (?) won Best Male Video. Harris’ juggernaut song of the summer “This Is What You Came For” triumphed in the Best Male Video category, though the dance producer didn’t appear in the video! This is the Rihanna show. No love for ex-girlfriend Taylor Swift, who rather showily took credit for writing the song earlier this summer. (I told you she was with us in spirit.)
  • Chance the Rapper’s nerdy dancing during Future’s set was something to behold. Where can I buy those overalls?
  • Nick Jonas performed, looked great.
  • Kanye’s four minutes. Before the show, MTV teased its agreement with Kanye West: He got four minutes to do whatever the hell he wanted on live TV. A gimmicky proposition, to be sure, but when does Kanye disappoint us? The answer is “never.” Chants of “Yeezy, Yeezy, Yeezy, Yeezy” roared as Kim Kardashian watched from the audience. “I am Kanye West, and that feels really great to say, especially this year. I came here to present my new video, but before I do that, Imma talk.” He defended his video for “Famous” for a bit, with another shout out to #KimExposedTaylorParty. “I put Ray J in it, bro! This is fame, bro! I see you, Amber [Rose, his ex, another waxwork in the video]!” He transitioned into comments on poverty, innovation, violence, police brutality, racism and more. Kanye 2020 is ramping up—and he debuted the video for “Fade,” a solo dance number featuring Teyana Taylor.
  • Rihanna’s second performance—featuring “Rude Boy” and “Work”—took us to the dancehall.
  • Serena Williams serves to Beyoncé. Williams made the most jaw-dropping cameo in Bey’s visual album Lemonade, so who better to introduce an amended, live supercut of the album’s highlights? The set’s slow, pensive start showed the startling image of hooded back-up dancers “gunned down” in an ode to victims of police brutality. She performed a bootylicious “Hold Up,” and an ebullient “Sorry.” As the performance wound through “Don’t Hurt Yourself” and “Formation,” it became clear: These unapologetically indulgent star turns are exactly what the VMAs are all about.
  • And now we come to Britney Jean Spears. At this point, it warrants mention that the last time we saw Britney at the VMAs, she was sputtering about the stage, missing her marks, looking like a fallen star with the eyes of the world on her. We only mention it to applaud how far she’s come—just how ferociously and magnificently things came full-circle in 2016. Presenter Kim Kardashian heralded a “triumphant comeback,” and exactly what Britney delivered. Spears looked great, performed “Make Me…” with G-Eazy, sampled his hit “Me, Myself & I,” and earned a standing ovation.
  • The “Final Five” storm the stage. The U.S. women’s gymnastics team (missing Gabby Douglas) arrived onstage to present Best Female Video to Beyoncé. For those keeping score, the greatest living female tennis player (Williams) and the greatest living female gymnast (Simone Biles) both made time for Beyoncé.
  • Rihanna performs a steampunk “Like a Prayer” rendition of “Bitch Better Have My Money.” Key and Peele: “We’re getting a Rihanna performance for every year Frank Ocean didn’t release an album.”
  • DNCE wins Best New Artist. Not to be outdone by bro Nick, Joe Jonas had his own turn in the VMA spotlight when his band won a Moonman. 2017 should be Kevin’s year.
  • Halsey and the Chainsmokers performed “Closer.” It was a welcome injection of fresh blood following a night of sets by established artists.
  • Beyoncé wins Video of the Year for “Formation.” In a short, sweet speech, Bey dedicates the award to her daughter, Jay Z, and the people of New Orleans, whose plight inspired the controversial clip.
  • Mary J. Blige caps off Rihanna’s “legendary night” with an introduction. Blige described Rihanna as a hustler whose voice has “sweetened with time,” and Rih launched into a torchy medley of “Stay” and “Diamonds.” Finally, her Motown-influenced “Love on the Brain” made a brassy, groovy night cap for an evening that displayed Rihanna’s full range. All hail the Queen of Singles, whose versatility knows know limits. Finally, Drake made a surprise appearance to hand Rihanna the Vanguard Award in person: “Some need to play a character to achieve success, some need to downplay themselves to fit in.” Rihanna runs the game while being herself. Well said, Drake!

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