The Billboard Music Awards don’t tell us anything we don’t already know. The awards simply reiterate the records that have occurred on the charts over the previous year, in trophy form. That does make the show a Who’s Who of pop music, though, featuring some of the bigger performances on the awards-show circuit. Last night’s show — one of the most post-COVID awards shows so far, with a near-full (masked, largely outdoor) audience and in-person appearances — was no different, featuring more of the musicians we’ve already heard for the past year, from the Weeknd to BTS to DJ Khaled (whose monthlong Khaled Khaled rollout has felt like a year). But as fated as the BBMAs can feel, last night’s show also offered a few surprises, from a stunning performance by Icon Award winner Pink; to moving speeches by Trae tha Truth and Pop Smoke’s mother, Audrey Jackson; to the Weeknd’s sheer presence; to a whimper of an ending by the Jonas Brothers. Here, the highs, lows, and whoas of the 2021 Billboard Music Awards.
WHOA: DJ Khaled continues to do the most.
When DJ Khaled’s performance of “We Going Crazy” opened with Khaled himself in front of the mic, dropping some ad-libs, we knew it would be a lot. A lot ended up meaning a poor sound mix, a dancing brass band, and a Migos opening performance less than a year after a woman accused Takeoff of sexual assault. But hey, H.E.R. sounded good!
HIGH: Doja Cat and SZA serve something sweet with “Kiss Me More.”
Did anyone else think those dancers were supposed to be oranges? It would’ve been fitting for Doja Cat and SZA’s delectable performance of “Kiss Me More,” a song that grows on you with each listen. Doja continues to deliver on the awards-show-performance circuit, with production and choreography in peak form, while SZA made viewers forget all about her preshow nerves. (Seriously, it’s great to see her back on awards-show stages. Now, here’s hoping she releases another album we can award!)
LOW: Twenty One Pilots go over the top and underwhelm.
Twenty One Pilots’ performance couldn’t rise to become a moment no matter how much Tyler Joseph screamed and jumped around on dragon setpieces.
HIGH: Alicia Keys puts on a show.
Celebrating the 20th anniversary of Alicia Keys’s debut, Songs in A Minor, seemed like a stretch … until Ms. Keys pulled a video-tribute message from Michelle Obama herself and performed a stunning four-song medley, with all the big notes and piano tricks we’ve come to expect. If her two-year tenure hosting the Grammys didn’t already convince you, this woman can own an awards-show stage.
LOW: Where is country?
Watching Gabby Barrett’s emotional acceptance of Top Country Female Artist and Top Country Song was sweet — so why didn’t she get a performance? As awards shows struggle to deal with the fallout of Morgan Wallen’s racial-slur video, the BBMAs decided it would give Wallen the awards he earned (after Dangerous spent a wild ten weeks at No. 1, mostly after said video) but wouldn’t televise any of his awards or let him perform. And, apparently, the BBMAs wouldn’t book any other country artists, like Barrett, to perform instead, even if country continues to have staying power on the charts.
HIGH: Pink, an icon.
Questions about why Jon Bon Jovi, of all people, gave her the Icon Award aside, Pink once again proved why she deserves all the Icon Awards at all the awards shows. She gave us the acrobatics; she gave us the emotional ballads; she gave us an appearance by her equally iconic daughter, Willow; she gave us the TikTok dance; and she gave us a rocking medley of the old hits to end it all? Icon behavior.
WHOA: A hopeful tribute to George Floyd and Minneapolis.
It continues to be a hard line for awards shows to toe: acknowledging all that’s happening in the world while being aware that awards shows can’t really do all that much to help. When it came time to acknowledge last summer’s Black Lives Matter protests in the wake of George Floyd’s death in a police killing, the BBMAs didn’t go for anything as direct as, say, Lil Baby’s intense Grammys performance of “The Bigger Picture.” Instead, it went for a more hopeful take, with gospel singer Ann Nesby and Minneapolis group Sounds of Blackness performing the 1991 song “Optimistic” from Minneapolis. It was powerful in its own way, even if the issue of police violence against Black people is far from solved a year after Floyd’s death.
HIGH: Trae tha Truth wins for his community.
Floyd had a career as a rapper, performing as Big Floyd with Houston legends like DJ Screw. So his police killing in Minneapolis reverberated throughout Houston, where rapper Trae tha Truth organized marches against police brutality in the wake of his fellow community member’s death. It wasn’t a new role for Trae, who had served his community for years through other tragedies, like Hurricane Harvey — and was recognized for that service with Billboard’s Change Maker Award. “Where I come from, nothing was ever promised,” he said. “I said if I ever got a position, I’d be there for those in need.”
HIGH: OMG, BTS.
The boys said it themselves: The live debut of “Butter” was indeed smooth like butter.
HIGH: A shocked Adonis Graham joins Drake for his Artist of the Decade acceptance.
Drake told the BBMAs audience that he’s “really bad at taking compliments” and “self-conscious about my music” as he accepted the night’s most massive award, Artist of the Decade. Sure. But at least Drake didn’t have to fully take the spotlight during his acceptance — thanks to the real star of the night, his absolutely adorable son, Adonis.
WHOA: The biggest awards-show flex continues to be booking the Weeknd.
The Weeknd was the man of the three-plus hours at the BBMAs, taking home ten awards after a dominant year thanks to After Hours and “Blinding Lights.” And on top of it all, he delivered yet another of his signature stylish performances, singing “Save Your Tears” between cars in a Los Angeles parking lot (in a black suit, no less). The whole night served as a reminder that, even if other awards shows didn’t recognize him, the numbers don’t lie.
HIGH: A powerful, earned honor for Pop Smoke.
Speaking of snubs — at least the BBMAs gave Pop Smoke a chance to be rightfully honored for his influential, cut-short career after the rapper was also roundly snubbed at the Grammys. And the late rapper’s mother, Audrey Jackson, accepted Top Billboard 200 Album with the night’s most powerful speech. “He created music for the kid who has to sleep four in a room, the kid who has to figure out how to get to school each day so he can graduate and make his mom proud,” she said. “He did this so that 14-year-olds would not have to kill to prove they are somebody.” Referencing Pop Smoke’s February 2020 killing, she added, “That is the irony in this, so thank you to the Billboard Awards leadership for honoring my young warrior.”
LOW: The other Jonases can’t save Nick.
Nick Jonas was a stiff, forgettable host throughout the show, sometimes playing a robot pretending to be a human. He could’ve redeemed himself with his closing performance but instead delivered an aggressively fine medley with the Jonas Brothers (and Marshmello on keys?). As if he did not release an album two months ago! “This Is Heaven” was right there! The Jo Bros’ last album, Happiness Begins, may have been a No. 1 (while Nick’s latest, Spaceman, peaked at 12), but it went to show: The charts can only get you so far.