The 10 Best 2021 VMAs Performances

The MTV Video Music Awards: music videos’ biggest night. Pop icons aplenty gathered at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn Sunday night to make the rest of us feel old, dull and drab, with an often inexplicably dressed Doja Cat hosting the star-studded ceremony (and MTV 40th anniversary celebration) in front of an actual crowd. The night’s big winners included Lil Nas X—who took home the most coveted Moon Person, winning Video of the Year for his “MONTERO (Call Me By Your Name)” clip—as well as Olivia Rodrigo, BTS and Justin Bieber. But the show’s real draw was its performances, the best of which we’ve rounded up for your viewing pleasure below.

Alicia Keys feat. Swae Lee: “LaLa” & “Empire State of Mind”

Alicia Keys’ two-song performance was too big for the Barclays Center, staged instead in Jersey City’s Liberty State Park against the luminous backdrop of the nighttime New York City skyline. The four-time VMA winner first debuted her silky new single “LALA (Unlocked)” alongside Swae Lee, whose heavily autotuned vocals were quite a contrast to Keys’ effortlessly smooth singing. The Rae Sremmurd rapper and singer stepped aside for Keys’ second song, a jazzy, mid-tempo rendition of her hit 2009 Jay-Z collaboration “Empire State of Mind.” The performance made for a lovely tribute to the city, and on the heels of the 20th anniversary of 9/11, no less.

Busta Rhymes: “Put Your Hands Where My Eyes Could See,” “Ante Up,” “Scenario,” “Touch It,” “Pass The Courvoisier,” & “Look at Me Now”

Joined by his longtime hype man and fellow Flatbush, Brooklyn native Spliff Star, the legendary Busta Rhymes put a handful of his best-loved tracks in a blender, mixing up a medley that turned the VMAs all the way up. From his Grammy-nominated 1997 single “Put Your Hands Where My Eyes Could See” to his song-stealing verse on Chris Brown’s “Look At Me Now” (which—understandably!—the emcee struggled a bit to get through on Sunday), Busta Rhymes’ performance was not only one of the night’s most high-energy sets, but also a career-spanning reminder of all he’s given to hip-hop, let alone MTV.

Chlöe: “Have Mercy”

Best-known as half of Chloe x Halle, Chloe Bailey (aka Chlöe) stepped out on her own in a big way on the VMAs stage, performing her recently released debut solo single “Have Mercy.” The performance starts off bombastic with choral vocals and rock guitar, but soon enough, the “Have Mercy” beat kicks in and Chlöe shows herself, commanding her backup dancers and looking every bit like Beyonce’s heir apparent. Her performance is worth watching on stage presence alone—we’re going to be seeing Chlöe in the spotlight for a long while to come.

Foo Fighters: “Learn To Fly,” “Shame Shame” & “Everlong”

Rock ‘n’ roll’s all-time quarterbacks the Foo Fighters were the genre’s biggest—some would say only—representatives at the VMAs, sandwiching their slinky Medicine at Midnight single “Shame Shame” between two stone-cold classics in “Learn to Fly” and “Everlong.” Their performance of the latter track found Dave Grohl, Taylor Hawkins and company backgrounded by a mosaic of Foo Fighters music video clips, a testament to the band’s MTV mainstay status. You know exactly what you’re getting whenever these guys take the stage, and that was more than enough for this VMAs audience.

Kacey Musgraves: “star-crossed”

Fresh off the release of her much-anticipated Golden Hour follow-up star-crossed, Kacey Musgraves delivered a bewitching rendition of its scene-setting opener and title track. An elaborate stage setup, featuring neon-lit imagery and some carefully timed pyrotechnics, amped up the song’s drama while a stoic Musgraves sang her broken heart out over Spanish guitar and a pulsating beat. Her performance was a standout balance of intimacy and style.

Kim Petras: “Future Starts Now”

Though not as big a name as many of Sunday night’s other performers, rising star Kim Petras put on a classically satisfying electro-pop show, with all the impossibly hooky vocals, dance moves and pink that that entails. “Let the moment blow your mind,” she sings on her Robyn-esque latest single “Future Stars Now,” good advice for taking in the exact kind of bubblegum-pop (literally) spectacle MTV was made for. Bonus points for the COVID-safe masked back-up dancers.

Lil Nas X ft. Jack Harlow: “Industry Baby” & “MONTERO (Call Me By Your Name)”

If the 2021 VMAs were a monarchy, Lil Nas X was the king. He kicked off his “Industry Baby” performance with a drum line-style entrance, then went shirtless, dancing alongside inmates in a very pink prison bearing his name, as well as that of his forthcoming debut album Montero, coming this Friday. Jack Harlow’s verse bought Lil Nas time for a wardrobe change, and boy did he take advantage, stripping down to perform “MONTERO (Call Me By Your Name)” in the prison showers. It may not have been as ubiquitous a conversation starter as the “MONTERO” video, but like everything Lil Nas does, his VMAs performance was an undeniable display of Black, queer joy and creativity.

Normani: “Wild Side”

Normani is no stranger to the VMAs stage—we’ve highlighted her performances at the awards before—and her Sunday night rendition of “Wild Side” was a reminder of why that is. The Fifth Harmony member-turned-solo artist made simultaneous, intense dancing and singing look almost too easy, a do-it-all pop star turn that culminated in her grinding on a bound Teyana Taylor. A summer hit featuring Cardi B, “Wild Side” itself was nominated in the VMAs’ Song of the Summer category, where it lost out to BTS’ “Butter.” But safe to say Normani, whose forthcoming debut solo album is hotly anticipated, made her mark on the evening with ease.

Olivia Rodrigo: “Good 4 U”

Teenaged 2021 breakout Olivia Rodrigo could have bowled the VMAs audience over with any number of tracks from her debut album Sour, but went with her pop-punk single “Good 4 U,” inspiring one of the night’s most emphatic crowd singalongs. The singer showed off her pipes while strutting the stage with the joyful swagger of a veteran performer, cracking a smile after dropping the song’s f-bomb and having a blast high-fiving the front row. Though Rodrigo’s voice seemed to wear down as the song went on, some clever stage design and punk-rock destruction of property put an exclamation point on one of the night’s most undeniable sets.

Ozuna: “La Funka”

Known to some as the “New King of Reggaeton,” Puerto Rican pop star Ozuna used his VMAs set to debut his new single, “La Funka,” in a performance that can only be described as adorable. Sharing the Barclays stage with dancing bears decked out in his merch, Ozuna delivered a low-key but charming rendition of his sticky new song, making space in the performance for a guitar solo, a dance-off, and shoutouts to his home country and Dominican heritage. The set’s bright, colorful imagery kept things light, but “La Funka” showed off Ozuna’s seriously melodic chops.

Scott Russell is Paste’s music editor and he’ll come up with something clever later. He’s on Twitter, if you’re into tweets: @pscottrussell.