[NEW YORK] Beyonce on Sunday stole the spotlight at the MTV Video Music Awards with a visually intricate medley of her next album with a subtle political touch.
Beyonce, who was up for the most awards in the night at 11, brought a surprise entourage to watch at New York's Madison Square Garden - the mothers of four young black men whose deaths have galvanised the US public in recent years.
She later took the stage with a medley of songs from her intertwined album-film Lemonade, starting with Bey in a haze of fog and culminating in fire.
Toward the end of a more than 15-minute set, the sound of a single shot rang out as her circle of dancers fall one-by-one and turn to red.
Beyonce was in the running for Video of the Year for the first track of Lemonade - Formation, the most politically charged song of her career in which police officers at one point are depicted raising their hands as if under arrest.
Lemonade also features the mothers of three slain young African American men whose mothers joined her in the audience - Michael Brown, Eric Garner and Trayvon Martin.
The mother of a fourth man, Oscar Grant, also joined her.
Martin, 17, was killed in 2012 by a white neighbourhood guard, helping trigger the Black Lives Matter movement. Brown, Garner and Grant were all killed by law enforcement.
Singer Alicia Keys offered another of the night's powerful moments as she recited a poem she said was inspired by civil rights hero Martin Luther King Jr. who delivered his landmark I Have A Dream speech in Washington 53 years ago Sunday.
In a year marred by global conflict and a bitter US presidential race, Keys, who moved seamlessly from spoken word to a cappella, voiced hope that "maybe we can love somebody instead of polishing a bomb."
"If war is holy and sex is obscene, then we got it twisted in this lucid dream / Baptized in boundaries, schooled in skin, divided by difference, sexuality and skin," she recited.
The Video Music Awards, broadcast to more than 120 countries, have long been known more for their on-stage antics than the winners, and this year MTV decided to let the artists loose.
In one of the night's most anticipated moments, rap superstar Kanye West - who last year used the occasion to declare his intention to run for president in 2020 - delivered a nearly stream-of-consciousness speech about empowerment.
"I sit down and talk to older, like, rich people - you know, white," West said to laughter and chanted of his stage-name Yeezy.
"And they tell me, don't compare yourself to Steve Jobs, don't compare yourself to Walt Disney," he said.
But West said that Disney and the iconic late Apple chief were among fewer than 10 artistic heroes in his life - who also include himself.
"Three keys to keeping people impoverished are taking away their esteem, taking away their resources and taking away their role models," said West, who started his speech by deploring street killings in his native Chicago.
He then presented a racy new video for his song Fade featuring actress and singer Teyana Taylor, who moves her body sensually in a gym before a steamy shower scene.
The video marked a theme, if accidental, of the evening of sexualised exercise.
Ariana Grande and Nicki Minaj earlier received roars of approval from the crowd for a sensual take on a workout, with the pop star and rapper dancing together in a stage transformed into a gym full of highly physical young men.
Drake won in the rap category for Hotline Bling, one of the most popular songs of the year.
But Drake did not appear to accept the award. According to the presenter, rap icon Puff Daddy, the Toronto star got stuck in New York traffic.
MTV presented its Video Vanguard Award, named after late King of Pop Michael Jackson in recognition to her contributions to pop culture, to Rihanna, who was to perform four times.
Rihanna opened the ceremony with, aptly, Don't Stop The Music, as she glided across the stage in a snug white T-shirt with a team of performers in matching laced outfits.
She later returned with another medley of tracks - including her recent hit Work - performed with a group of body-shaking dancers from inside the audience at Madison Square Garden.