Last night, the MTV VMAs brought their unique blend of fun, scandal, and quirky ceremony back to Brooklyn’s Barclays Center, bringing along a live audience for the first time since 2019. Doja Cat hosted, performed, and wore a truly hilarious sequence of off-the-wall costumes. Olivia Rodrigo threw her own prom. Chloe, Normani, and Teyana Taylor saluted the show’s salacious history while paying homage to their heroes. It felt like VMAs were “back,” for lack of a better term.
But while the fans in attendance seemed to be having the time of their lives, an undercurrent of discontent rippled among those watching from home, eventually bubbling up to the surface on Twitter. Viewers skewered the show for its treatment of hip-hop, which they felt had been reduced to an afterthought by the show’s attempt to cover a wide swath of musical genres and generations. While neophyte performers like The Kid Laroi teamed up with their elders like Justin Bieber (congratulations, you’re old now) and even the aging Foo Fighters got their due, for some, it seemed like hip-hop had been left in cold.
Were it not still summer, that would be a literal assessment. Performers Latto and Saint JHN performed their sets from a pavilion outside the main venue and although each was given multiple opportunities to perform — three songs each — home viewers noted that those performances basically amounted to snippets of each song functioning as advertising bumpers. One only lasted for thirty seconds, which more than one commenter observed was shorter than one of the commercials that followed it.
The only main stage rap performance came from Busta Rhymes, who’s been around as long as the Foo Fighters have and whose most recent mega-hit (“Touch It”) might actually be older than half the audience that attended. That, of course, doesn’t count Doja Cat, whose hybrid pop-R&B sound is often punctuated by secretly impressive raps honed on LA’s indie-hip-hop performance circuit (shout out to Bananas!) or Machine Gun Kelly, who still maintains a penchant for spitting the odd 16-bar missive despite ostensibly making the switch to pop-punk, emo-rock tribute. Lil Nas X may have started as a rapper, but he calls himself a pop star now. While Busta’s performance was lauded (again I ask, does the man even breathe during his “Look At Me Now” verse?), it also highlighted the VMAs’ utter lack of main stage hip-hop from this decade — of which there would certainly appear to be no shortage.
Now, we don’t know all the behind-the-scenes, contractual details. There’s still a pandemic on, and many of rap’s top names have flouted reasonable safety precautions over the past year — even Busta himself, who gave a weird, anti-mask rant just a few months ago and has always at least rapped like an anti-vaxxer, even if he might not really be one (rap is wrestling, let’s not forget). But still, there was a decided dearth of appearances from the likes of Lil Baby, Lil Durk, Lil Uzi Vert, hell, even Lil Wayne (yes, I know, hip-hop has a lot of “Lils” — if you’re still complaining about this in 2021, maybe you aren’t the audience for it. Go listen to Foo Fighters or something).
Even Travis Scott only showed up to accept his award for Best Hip-Hop Video (for “Franchise”), giving a short speech before probably bouncing from the building entirely. Plenty of hip-hop artists and videos were nominated — very few won Moon People, despite their videos’ arguable worthiness. Fans were right to be incensed. However, this is the MTV VMAs we’re talking about here. They’ve almost never given any level of serious thought to rap as a genre or hip-hop as a culture, and as mostly fan-voted awards like Artist Of The Year have shown time after time, MTV’s audience has never quite been as invested in them as much as they have pop megastars like Britney Spears and Taylor Swift (or Swift’s heir apparent, Olivia Rodrigo) — the obvious exception being Eminem, for obvious reasons.
So disappointed, but not surprised, is probably the sentiment that best describes how many of us feel about the show’s treatment of hip-hop — which is, if nothing else, reflective of how mainstream America views the perceived creators and purveyors of hip-hop. It’s just a little more disappointing after so many of the show’s efforts in 2020 to acknowledge Black Americans’ plights, making the progress feel more performative than anything. On the bright side, the ratio of Black performers was greater than it’s been since Busta and Missy ruled the VMAs (and took home a paltry handful of awards in their primes, although Missy was honored with a Vanguard Award in 2019). One of them was a gay Black man, expressing his sexuality unabashedly in a flamboyant performance preceding a win for Artist Of The Year.
That’s how progress actually looks. It’s rarely a straight line, with everything moving forward at once. Maybe we take some Ls along the way. Maybe one thing moves forward while others stay stagnant or suffer setbacks. We shouldn’t be discouraged by this. We shouldn’t overlook it either, because the only way we keep moving forward is by constantly fighting for it. But we should take stock and appreciate the wins too. Black women won last night, even if they didn’t take home as many Moon People as some would have liked. Busta Rhymes, a sometimes overlooked legend, got his flowers. Lil Nas X got to stand in a place no one like him would have just a decade ago, as Billy Porter pointed out in his introduction of the “Industry Baby” performance.
And as for Latto and Saint JHN, they got to play more songs than anyone else. Maybe those in the venue wouldn’t have seen them, but far more people watched the broadcast and got to see two of rap’s rising stars multiple times. Those who watched certainly know who they are now — which, when you think about it, is actually the point of these shows in the first place. We don’t always remember who won which award, but those performances can be the first time we fall in love. Someone somewhere did just that last night — and that’s the first step toward becoming the sort of fan-favorite with a shelf full of Moon People.
Some artists covered here are Warner Music artists. Uproxx is an independent subsidiary of Warner Music Group.