Normani's Incredible 2021 VMA Performance Proves She’s the Next Pop Star to Watch

Her performance of "Wild Side" was a direct nod to Janet Jackson.

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Few award shows have a reputation like the MTV Video Music Awards. Sure, the Academy Awards have the prestige factor and the Golden Globes are infamous for being one of the few functions that serves booze, but few can compare to the amount of sheer iconic pop-culture, history-making moments that have come out of the VMAs. There's Britney and the python, the Britney-Madonna-Xtina kiss, Lady Gaga's meat dress, Miley Cyrus' 2013 twerkathon, and countless other jaw-dropping performances that have caused a frenzy on and offline.

Given the award show's reputation, it can seem like each year a handful of acts compete to have the breakout moment of the night. But at this year's show—which went down live and in person on September 12 in NYC and saw performances from Doja Cat (who also hosted), recent breakouts Olivia Rodrigo and Lil Nas X, Justin Bieber, and others—the best, most stand-out act was Normani, whose performance was simply classic.

The pop/R&B singer who originated in the pop group Fifth Harmony before going solo took to the stage to perform "Wild Side," the lead single off her upcoming debut album. The sultry slow jam is her first solo follow-up to the 2019 mega-hit "Motivation," and she made a point to not only highlight the song's sexy, sleek quality, but her command as a dancer, appearing just with a troupe of backup dancers against a white backdrop. Although the song sounds resonant of the late R&B singer Aaliyah, she was absolutely channeling Janet Jackson. And not just in her choreography: At the end of the song, singer/model Teyana Taylor came out strapped to a BDSM-style cross and Normani gave her a lap dance, which is straight from the Jackson tour playbook. Now that's a VMAs moment that's unforgettable!

Normani's performance actually almost didn't happen. The singer wasn't originally scheduled to appear, but a fan-driven petition on social media convinced MTV to give her stage time just a few days before the event. It absolutely would've been criminal not to let her perform, considering her set was the most stunning of the night. It may have taken some time to get another release from Normani, but it seems as though that's just because she's confident in what's to come, and fans should be, too. By the looks of her star power and stage presence, there's many more top-tier VMAs performances where "Wild Side" came from.

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Sadie Bell is the entertainment associate editor at Thrillist. She's on Twitter at @mssadiebell.