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While the 2018 MTV Video Music Awards on Monday night (Aug. 20) were heavy on memorable moments, they were relatively light on full-length performances.
With so many of the show’s esteemed guests not actually taking the main stage to perform — Cardi B broke the seal on the evening but quickly scampered back to her seat, while Madonna’s Aretha Franklin tribute was kept to a perhaps-too-extended monologue — and several up-and-coming artists playing abbreviated cuts on the sidestage, there were only nine full performances to be had in the main show.
That said, those nine mini-gigs still included political statements, wet T-shirts, competing medleys from the artists with the top two albums in the country right now, and one of the great career-spanning performances in show history. Here’s how Billboard ranks the nine full performances from the first Monday night VMAs ever.
9. Travis Scott feat. James Blake, “Stargazing” / “Stop Trying to Be God” / “Sicko Mode”
Travis Scott became a superstar largely on his rep as a live sensation, but without an impossibly hyped crowd to help conduct the energy he projects, his actual stage show can come off a little inert. Scott’s three-song Astroworld medley at the VMAs was fairly choppy, never really gaining momentum song-to-song despite his elaborately surreal stage setup, and ending just as it was starting to get going a little. Check Travis out as a headliner at likely a half-dozen different music festivals next year, but feel free to flip during his award-show performances.
8. Shawn Mendes, “In My Blood”
In front of projections of thundering skies, Shawn Mendes took the stage for the first performance of the night in a sleeveless shirt and greasy hair like the reincarnation of 1984 Bruce Springsteen. The ensuing rendition of Shawn Mendes lead single “In My Blood” — which included Mendes donning an electric guitar, leading the audience in a singalong, and eventually getting totally drenched in a downpour of his own making — might not have evoked peak Born in the U.S.A., but Mendes certainly looked and sounded the rock-star part by performance’s end, wailing his heart out in his soaked-through tee.
7. Maluma, “Felices los 4”
In his debut VMAs performance, Maluma showed why his star power is crossing international lines. Originally released in April 2017, “Felices los 4” is a little old to still be played at the 2018 VMAs, but given the rareness of Spanish-language performances on the VMAs stage, it’s not surprising that he opted for his most irresistible hit — which soundtracked the silver-dressed Latin sensation not only getting frisky with a number of his backup dancers, but also doing a short dance with eventual video of the year winner Camila Cabello in the audience.
6. Logic feat. Ryan Tedder, “One Day”
Introduced by Teyana Taylor as one of the “most positive and impactful voices for change” of his generation, Logic began his performance of Ryan Tedder collab “One Day” by leading in a group of kids wearing shirts adorned with the phrase “We are all human beings” — while his own tee stated unequivocally, “F*ck the wall.” Unlike his performances of smash 2017 hit “1-800-273-8255” at last year’s VMAs and this year’s Grammys, where he took a moment out at song’s end to explicitly preach his message, Logic let the music (and T-shirts) speak for themselves this time — as well as a sign behind the stage that read “U.S. Border Patrol,” making the song’s anti-Trump immigration policy message clear. With the kids raising candles at the end and everyone hugging as Tedder belted the final chorus, it was an unsubtle but highly emotional climax that ’90s Michael Jackson would’ve been proud of.
5. Panic! At the Disco, “High Hopes”
With some clever camerawork obscuring the fact that he was standing on an elevated platform, Brendon Urie of Panic! At the Disco began his performance of buoyant Pray for the Wicked single “High Hopes” by seemingly drifting through the skies, like in the climax to a ’40s musical. The rest of Urie & Co.’s performance was nearly as dazzling, with a cacophony of strings and horns supporting the vocal histrionics and high-energy physicality of Urie, whose floral-print suit might’ve been the loudest thing on stage.
4. Post Malone, 21 Savage & Aerosmith, “Rockstar” / “Dream On” / “Toys in the Attic”
After a dutiful, 21 Savage-assisted run through his Hot 100-slaying 2017 single “Rockstar” from the Radio City rafters, Post Malone was lowered onto the main stage to live out his rock star fantasies in earnest: as a guitarist and backing vocalist for legit rock gods Aerosmith. The band kicked off with standard-bearing power ballad “Dream On” while Posty plugged in, then launched into the blistering title track of their 1975 masterwork Toys in the Attic, rather than their VMAs road-tested “Walk This Way” as initially predicted. It was a risky closing set for the night — not many 2018 award shows end with four-decade-old classic rock deep cuts — but it worked because Aerosmith still kick out the jams, and because Post’s overjoyed sense of fantasy fulfillment was palpable from the second he strapped on his six-string.
3. Nicki Minaj, “Majesty” / “Barbie Dreams” / “Ganja Burn” / “Fefe”
From the middle of the cavernous World Trade Center terminal station, Nicki Minaj led a throng of rabid Barbz in a resounding performance of three highlights from her recent Queen — “Majesty,” “Barbie Dreams” and an a cappella “Ganja Burns” — as well as her verse on controversial co-star 6ix9ine’s “FeFe.” Nicki sounded fully in command, and divorced from all the drama surrounding her album rollout, theQueen songs sounded fairly massive, leaving room for hope that the recent few weeks of controversy don’t have to be the final word in this era of the rap superstar’s career.
2. Ariana Grande, “God Is a Woman”
In a performance that felt like something her music video co-star Madonna might’ve brought to the VMAs 20 or 30 years ago, Ariana Grande’s “God Is a Woman” performance saw her and a couple dozen backing dancers slowly slithering around and sprawling over a long table, an all-female Last Supper. After the imaginatively composed sequence, which Ariana belted through with pristine pitch, the performance closed with Ariana’s mother, aunt and grandmother taking the stage next to her. Appropriately immaculate.
1. Jennifer Lopez, Hits Medley
“BLESS UP THE QUEEN, J-LO!” bellowed DJ Khaled at the end of Jennifer Lopez’s Video Vanguard performance. Hard to argue with, particularly after a performance that contained a career’s worth of expertly executed dance sequences, lavish costume changes, and — above all — beloved hits. Not all of the songs are classics, necessarily, but a handful of them legitimately are, and Lopez sped through them at such breakneck speed that you barely had time to get emotional over her Frozen Princess performance of “All I Have” before she was twerking up a storm to “Ain’t It Funny.” Twenty years into her pop career, her claim to the triple-threat throne remains virtually unchallenged.