The best (and worst) performances


The MTV VMAs have never skimped on drama, and with a performance lineup including a sassy new collaboration between Cardi B and Megan Thee Stallion, pop-rock pyrotechnics from Olivia Rodrigo, Demi Lovato and Fall Out Boy and the muscular musings of Måneskin, the 2023 show was primed for a kinetic night.

Airing live from the Prudential Center in Newark, New Jersey Sept. 12, the VMAs also coaxed a couple of MTV veterans back to the stage. Global Icon Award winner Sean “Diddy” Combs, who hadn’t performed on the show since 2005, and Shakira, recipient of the MTV Video Vanguard Award, who was set to play the VMAs for the first time since 2006.

The 50th anniversary of hip-hop also landed a prime spot on the performance itinerary as Doug E. Fresh, Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, LL Cool J, Darryl “DMC” McDaniels, Lil Wayne and VMAs host Nicki Minaj were tapped to close the show.

Here’s a look at each of the performances:

50th anniversary of hip-hop

The five-decade anniversary of one of the most intriguingly evolving genres has received numerous spotlights this year, including an all-star bash at the Grammy Awards. Unfortunately, despite the presence of Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, Doug E. Fresh, Nicki Minaj, Lil Wayne, LL Cool J and Darryl “DMC” Simmons of Run-DMC, the VMAs tribute felt like a hastily produced hodgepodge.

There is much to be admired about the turntable skills in “The Message,” the beat-boxing in “The Show” and LL’s muscled arms poking out of his sparkly outfit as he bulldozed through “Mama Said Knock You Out.”

The modern insertions of Minaj (“Red Ruby Da Sleeze”) and Lil Wayne (vigorously thrusting his crotch during “Get It Right”) served as reminders that it’s tough to surpass vintage. Even LL’s mic tradeoffs with DMC on “Rock Box” and “Walk This Way,” performed a millisecond behind the beat, was more of a slog than a rollicking conclusion. 

Kelsea Ballerini

The country crossover singer made her VMAs performance debut with the ballad “Penthouse (Healed Version).” Backed by piano and a string section, the confessional singer injected plenty of emotion into the lovelorn song. The quiet background allowed the fans singing along to be heard clearly, especially the cheers when Ballerini took a pause that felt a beat too long, but the moment was used for a bit of costume magic when her long white dress morphed into a short black one out of a cloud of light. 


A reliably electrifying live presence, the Italian rock quartet kicked off their performance of new single “Honey (Are U Coming?)” with singer Damiano David in the audience armed with a handheld camera as he made his way to the stage. Shorn and blond (to match the newly platinum tresses of drummer Ethan Torchio), the shirtless David roamed the stage as ever-alluring bassist Victoria De Angelis and guitarist Thomas Raggi played off each other. “Honey” might not be their best song, but Måneskin always livens up…

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