Rihanna opened the 2016 MTV VMAs show from New York’s Madison Square Garden with a throwback to her early songs, starting with “Don’t Stop the Music” from 2007 before moving into 2011’s “We Found Love” and “Where Have You Been.” The singer wore an all-white Hood By Air ensemble as she performed with dancers in white outfits and go-go boots.
The show’s masters of ceremony then introduced themselves as social media influencers “The Shamester” and “Lizard Sheeple” -- but really, they were comedians Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele in disguise.
Diddy took the stage to present Best Hip-Hop Video, which went to Drake for “Hotline Bling.” He explained that Drake was not there to accept the award because he was stuck in traffic.
Chance the Rapper introduced Ariana Grande and New York native Nicki Minaj. Grande opened the performance from a spinning bike on a gym-themed set, singing “Side to Side,” and looked very different with her new bangs, though she still wore her signature high ponytail.
Minaj made her entrance in a hot-pink bodysuit with gym-unfriendly high-heeled boots. The two closed out their song in the raciest way possible -- by receiving simulated oral sex from two male dancers.
Alicia Keys ascended the stage, makeup-free as usual, and talked about the 53rd anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech before reciting her own poem, starting with, “If war is holy and sex is obscene, then we got it twisted in this lucid dream.”
She later broke into song: “Oh, maybe we could love somebody. Maybe we could care a little more. Oh maybe we could love somebody, instead of policies of bombs and holy war.” She reminded the audience that “all women and men are created equal” before announcing that Calvin Harris had won Best Male Video for “This is What You Came For,” feat. Rihanna.
Olympic gold medalist Michael Phelps introduced Future on stage, admitting that he was listening to “Stick Talk” by the rapper when he was at the Olympics. Future did not opt to play Phelps’ favorite track, though, opting for “F*** Up Some Commas” instead in an all-red outfit.
Kanye West made his highly anticipated appearance on stage, saying, “I am ... 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, I’m a talk.”
And talk he did. The rapper spoke for approximately four minutes, admitting that he would not be upset if “Famous” lost to Beyonce: “I’m always wishing for Beyonce to win.”
He then talked about his video for “Famous,” and laughed at himself.
“The audacity to put Anna Wintour next to Donald Trump -- I mean, I put Ray J in there bro,” he chuckled. “This is fame, bro. Like -- I see you, Amber.” The camera panned to his ex-girlfriend, Amber Rose, who smiled at the name-check, as did his wife, Kim Kardashian West.
“We came over in the same boat and now we all in the same bed,” he said. West then talked about how 22 people were murdered in Chicago. As the camera panned to the audience, Diddy appeared to be confused.
The rapper moved onto his infamous feud with Taylor Swift and said, “I love y’all -- that’s why I called her,” as the audience cheered.
West went back to talking about people dying and mentioned a fan who came up to him whose three friends died. “If you feel like you see people dying right next to you, you might feel like what’s the point? Like you know, life is like worthless, in a way,” pondered West.
West then talked about his role models: “My role models are artist-merchants. Less than 10 I can name in history. Truman, Ford, Hughes, Disney, Jobs, West.”
The rapper then said he was standing in front of “the future,” who he said was in the hands of Chance the Rapper. “We are undeniably the influence, the thought leaders,” added West.
Finally, he wrapped up his speech and threw to an extremely sexual fitness-themed video for his song “Fade” with model Teyana Taylor wearing a thong bodysuit.
Afterward, Naomi Campbell presented someone she calls an “extraordinary woman”: Rihanna. The singer performed her second set of the night with “Rude Boy” and “Work.”
Later, Rita Ora and Ansel Elgort introduced Nick Jonas’ performance of “Bacon.” The singer started in a kitchen below the stage with Instagram personality Josh “The Fat Jew” Ostrovsky making a cameo. The guest spots continued as Jonas walked up from the kitchen into Madison Square Garden’s neighbor, Tick Tock Diner, with brother Joe Jonas’ band DNCE and Ashley Graham making appearances, as well as Ty Dolla $ign, who is featured on the track.
Serena Williams introduced her friend, Beyonce, who appeared larger than life in all white as she stood front of a screen with flames on it. “The past and future merge to meet us here,” said a voice-over recording by Beyonce.
Beyonce looked angelic standing amidst fog as she sang “Pray You Catch Me.” Her dancers ascended in all white and fell to the ground one by one as their spotlights turned red, undoubtedly a reference to gun violence. A man in a black hoodie stood behind Beyonce, holding her shoulders.
Beyonce transitioned into “Hold Up” as her voiceover breathlessly asked, “Are you cheating on me? Are you cheating on me?” She changed outfits into a black bodysuit and boots for the song.
Beyonce danced down a runway through the show as she briefly switched over into the song “Countdown” before coming back to “Hold Up” as she stalked the stage with a bat.
The singer then sang “Sorry” and amped up the rage with “Don’t Hurt Yourself” -- she ended the song lying on the stage surrounded by flames before she began to sing “Formation,” flanked by dancers in all black and black top hats, similar to the one the singer wore in the music video for the same song. She finished the performance with all of her dancers lying on the stage.
Key and Peele pretended to cry, as Key said, “I’d give you a eulogy but I’m also dead,” after the show-stopping performance.
Jaden Smith and Shameik Moore presented Best Collaboration to Fifth Harmony for “Work from Home,” featuring Ty Dolla $ign.
Kim Kardashian West introduced Britney Spears and reminded the audience of Spears’ biggest VMA moments that included holding a snake around her shoulders and kissing Madonna on stage.
Spears writhed onstage in a sexy sequined yellow bodysuit and sang “Make Me” while G-Eazy rapped; the pair transitioned into G-Eazy’s single “Me, Myself & I.” The lack of onstage chemistry was apparent, however, as the rapper awkwardly circled Spears as she averted eye contact.
The Final Five gold medal-winning Olympic gymnasts looked excited as they stood on stage. Simone Biles, who wore a red frock, could not stop giggling. The team explained that their fifth member, Gabby Douglas, was unable to make the show because of medical problems. The young women announced that Beyonce won Best Female Video for “Hold Up,” and looked starstruck as the diva hugged them while she accepted her award.
Tracee Ellis Ross wore an MTV emblazoned sweater as she introduced Rihanna’s third performance of the night. Rihanna looked glamorous with a fox stole and sequins as she sang “Needed Me” before performing “Pour It Up” and “B***h Better Have My Money.” The camera showed West smiling as Rihanna closed her performance.
Fifth Harmony presented Best New Artist, which went to Joe Jonas’ new band DNCE.
Later, the Chainsmokers performed “Close” with Halsey.
Jimmy Fallon shocked the VMAs audience when he donned Ryan Lochte-esque bleached hair onto the stage along with a faux Olympic medal. He quoted Justin Bieber and sang, “Is it too late to say sorry?” before he presented Video of the Year. Michael Phelps stood in the audience and took photos of Fallon as his teammate from his phone and laughed during Fallon’s monologue.
“I had a 30-way with Kanye West,” cracked Fallon. “What a year. I made ‘Lemonade’ with Queen Bey.”
Queen Bey was the winner, it turned out, for “Formation.” She thanked her daughter and husband.
“I have the most incredible team. They work tirelessly,” she added. She also said that the award was dedicated to “the people of New Orleans.”
Mary J. Blige introduced Rihanna for her grand finale and called her “a little girl from a small island whose dreams came true,” citing the pop star’s early beginnings in her career 12 years ago.
Rihanna wore a princess-like champagne-colored gown onstage as she sang “Stay” accompanied by a white grand piano and orchestra. The singer clearly saved the most powerhouse songs for last as she belted “Diamonds” before singing a soulful rendition of “Love on the Brain.”
Drake appeared onstage, after emerging from traffic, apparently. He appeared to be choking up as he presented Rihanna with the Vanguard award. The two exes, who are always rumored to be on and off, smiled at each other as he talked about the first time he met her, when she shot the video for “Pon de Replay,” and he talked about her accomplishments and effortless style. He said of the star, “She succeeds by doing something no one in the music industry does, which is being herself.”
“She’s someone I’ve been in love with since I was 22 years old,” he said as Rihanna laughed. “She is one of my best friends in the world. All of my adult life I have looked up to her, even though she is younger than me. She is a living breathing legend in our industry.”
Rihanna took the award in her hands and said of the people of Barbados, “They’re going to be so proud of me. This is the first Vanguard to land anywhere close to my country.”
She continued and closed out the show by explaining that she shared her Vanguard with many people: “My success started as my dreams,” she said. “Now my success is not my own. It’s my family’s, it’s my fans’, my country’s, it’s the Caribbean as a whole, it’s women’s, it’s black women’s. So many people feel like their little piece is such a major part of this puzzle.”