Brutally honest reviews of every VMAs 2023 performance, including Olivia Rodrigo

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 an awards show. 

Tomorrow X Together and Anitta

(L-R) Yeonjun, HueningKai, Soobin, Beomgyu and Taehyun of Tomorrow X Together perform.

The K-pop quintet premiered their glossy pop song, “Back for More,” which instantly grabbed attention with its infectious chorus. Anitta popped out in her thigh high boots to add a dash of sexiness to the song as a video background of splashing water added to the allure. Tomorrow X Together’s impressive dance moves were mirrored by a troop of additional fleet feet for a vibrant, fun performance. 

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Fall Out Boy

The emo rockers broke out their updated version of Billy Joel’s “We Didn’t Start the Fire,” backed, ingeniously, by a row of flames that sparked into plumes of pyro. While their version of the song, which they released in June, is commendable for its attention to current events, hitting on everything from the Chicago Cubs winning the World Series to “YouTube killed MTV,” the scattershot timeline recited by singer Patrick Stump renders it toothless compared to Joel’s 1989 original.

Metro Boomin’, Future, Swae Lee, NAV and A Boogie Wit da Hoodie

Metro Boomin performs.

A hip-hop conglomerate convened for a performance that started with Future being lowered from a floating altar while Metro Boomin’ handled most of “Superhero (Heroes & Villains).” A walk across the stage lit like lava brought out Swae Lee, NAV and A Boogie Wit da Hoodie to tackle “Calling” as the quartet strolled around in front of a massive speaker, the lackadaisical vibe of the song keeping the audience’s hands bouncing in slow motion. 

Stray Kids

Musical group Stray Kids perform.

The K-pop sensation unveiled their sharply coordinated dance moves on “S-Class,” a combination of rock, hip-hop and an invigorating chorus. The octet was joined by additional dancers to commandeer the stage as they blasted through the brash hit from their third album, “5-Star,” each of the members’ personalities and distinctive looks spotlighted throughout.

Peso Pluma

Amid columns of white light, the cool Mexican hotshot strutted around a circle of musicians waving his hands and bobbing through “Lady Gaga.” Even behind his ebony shades, Pluma’s intensity shot between the beams. Sprightly horns and upright bass colored the song, a hit from his third album, “Genesis.” 

Sean ‘Diddy’ Combs

Diddy performs.

The recipient of the Global Icon Award, who said during his acceptance speech that his dream was to become a football player for the Pittsburgh Steelers until he suffered an injury. 

He took to the stage for a nostalgia-fueled medley that reminded us of his dominance in hip-hop for the past two-plus decades. Clad in a red jumpsuit, Diddy and dancers quickly rolled into his most famous song, “I’ll Be Missing You,” his bittersweet tribute to Notorious B.I.G. powered by the undercurrent of The Police’s “Every Breath You Take.”

He danced in circles for “It’s All About the Benjamins,” was joined by his son Christian on “Bad Boy For Life” (twin daughters Jessie and D’Lila accompanied as dancers) and stutter-stepped across the stage to meet guest Keyshia Cole to trade verses on their 2006 hit, “Last Night.”

Diddy closed his set with a blast of ‘90s nostalgia, the Diana Ross-sampling “Mo Money, Mo Problems,” the first song he performed on the VMAs stage in 1997. 

Karol G

Performing on one of the coolest stages of the show, the woman behind the first No. 1 Spanish album by a female artist made her VMAs debut on a neon-lighted production surrounded by dancers in pink and purple plaid skirts. Karol G writhed her way through “Oki Doki” and “Tá OK (Remix)” with a mix of sensuality and confidence, occasionally getting lost amid her giant dance crew, but landing in the center of the production by the end of her performance. 

Nicki Minaj

Nicki Minaj performs.

The evening’s emcee hadn’t been seen since her opening welcome, but she returned for a preview of “Pink Friday 2,” coming Nov. 17. “Last Time I Saw You” is a pretty, elegant pop song that edges from its subdued beginning into some trademark Minaj fierceness, which she emphasized by pulling back her floor length puffy black cape to jut out a fishnet-stockinged leg. Pink lighting – naturally – shaded the background as the song dovetailed back into sweetness (“I wish I’d hugged you tighter the last time that I saw you/I wish I didn’t waste precious time the night when I called you”).

Minaj used her platform to debut another new song – “It wouldn’t be right if I didn’t give you a ‘Pink Friday 2’ exclusive,” she said. Now clad in sheer black, Minaj unveiled a few lines of the new rap track that included the lyrics, “You said you look up to her, but really, you look up to me!,” which she spat while jabbing the air with her finger. So no, Minaj’s edges haven’t been blunted. 


Shakira performs.

Making her first live appearance at the VMAs since 2006, the fetching Colombian firebrand looked about two decades younger than her 46 years as she bounced through a 10-minute medley of hits performed in Spanish and English. The recipient of this year’s Michael Jackson Video Vanguard Award flung her mane and howled through “She Wolf” and playfully punched at the camera as she entered a drum circle for “Objection,” which included some tantalizing caressing of her mic stand as well as Shakira strapping on an electric guitar to rip out a few rock chords.

Though it was difficult to discern how much of her vocals were live, the focus was usually on her hips, still not lying as they did all the work in her gold-fringed skirt during “Whenever, Wherever.” Potent pounding drums complemented “Hips Don’t Lie” before Shakira wrapped her dazzling return with “BZRP Music Sessions, Vol. 53,” a savage takedown of her ex Gerard Pique. During the song, Shakira crowd surfed before landing on a hydraulic lift that raised her above the adoring throng.

More:Shakira seemingly takes aim at ex Gerard Piqué in new song: ‘I was out of your league’

Doja Cat

Doja Cat performs.

The rapper-singer opted for a sexy librarian look – tailored gray skirt suit, hair in a bun, glasses – for her summer hit “Attention.” But soon the jacket was flung for the finger-snapping “Paint the Town Red” and her dancers – in full zombie mode – encircled her so she could unleash her flowing blond hair and apparently enter a wind tunnel for “Demons.” Doja unbuttoned her white shirt to expose a bright red bra to match her ankle boots while papers flew all over the stage, evoking some kind of urban disarray. 


The Brazilian beauty offered one of the three tracks from her new EP, “Funk Generation: A Favela Love Story,” which pays homage to her homeland. Her use of backing tracks was so prevalent, it didn’t appear Anitta was ever singing live. The words being heard onstage while the mic was nowhere near her mouth was a bit of a giveaway. But no matter, since most were likely content to watch her slinky dance moves during the pulsing, breathy song.

Demi Lovato

To promote “Revamped,” her new album out Friday featuring rock versions of many of her hits, Lovato and her sizzling all-female band pulled out plenty of rock tropes to emphasize the potency of these new renditions. “Heart Attack” was a frenzy of white lights and pyro worthy of any arena show, while “Sorry Not Sorry” found Lovato’s guitarist at her feet to rip out a solo. But it was the third of her offerings, the bi-curious “Cool for the Summer,” that most benefited from this muscular revamp. Lovato, her long black hair slicked back to match her form-fitting dress, slinked through the first verse of the song before it exploded into a fireball of vocals. Lovato’s joy at the end of the song – a beaming smile and kisses blown toward the crowd – was a pleasant sight.

Cardi B and Megan Thee Stallion

Megan Thee Stallion performs.

Never one to shy away from a grand entrance, Cardi B was lowered on a giant crystal ball to land among shirtless men playing congas (yes, the song is called “Bongos,” but why nitpick?). The tropical backdrop served as a playground with a marble set of stairs for Cardi to scamper down and gyrate to the salacious new song. Her partner in rhyme, Megan Thee Stallion, handled her rapid-fire verses from a catwalk, which she stalked while shaking her thighs with her dancers until the pair of rap powerhouses met in the middle. They strolled arm-in-arm, the propulsive beat a marching rhythm as they headed back to the main stage to dance together in what was essentially a part strip show, part awards show performance.

Olivia Rodrigo

Olivia Rodrigo performs.

The current It girl of pop-rock hit fans with a double shot of songs from her new “Guts” album. Sitting among fake foliage, rocks and dry ice that fluttered like a stream, Rodrigo, in a blood red bikini top and cheerleader skirt with lipstick to match, delivered “Vampire” with emphatic annoyance in her voice. Her segue to “Get Him Back!,” one of the funniest songs on “Guts,” was jagged, but she quickly settled in with a line of girls in similar (pink) outfits strolling the stage next to her as she pointedly sang the lyrics directly into the camera.  

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Lil Wayne

Introduced as “the best rapper alive,” Weezy kicked off the show with a hyped performance of “Uproar” and “Kat Food.” His face covered with a hoodie for the first minute of his appearance, Lil Wayne was backed by a pack of scantily clad female dancers who swiveled and twerked while he bopped to an auxiliary stage while peers such as Fat Joe looked on. It was a bit of a sloppy, chaotic opening that seemed to clip Lil Wayne’s appearance short to move to the second part of the segment with Olivia Rodrigo. 

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