This is a version of a quote from Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita, a novel about the Devil secretly hanging out with some not chill guys. The quote comes from the Devil, though he’s disguised as a person named Woland when he says it, and it’s delivered to a simpleton named Matthew:
As soon as you appeared on this roof you made yourself ridiculous. It was your tone of voice. You spoke your words as though you denied the very existence of the shadows or of evil. Think, now: where would your good be if there were no evil and what would the world look like without shadow? Shadows are thrown by people and things. There’s the shadow of my sword, for instance. But shadows are also cast by trees and living things. Do you want to strip the whole globe by removing every tree and every creature to satisfy your fantasy of a bare world? You’re stupid.
Do you know what 1990’s House Party was? Let me tell you what 1990’s House Party was. It was classical tragedy. It was a jarring battle between good vs. evil, and in a stricter sense than I’d ever realized and also a broader sense than I’d ever realized. I’m stupid. I’m stupid like Matthew was, or is.
The most famous scene from House Party is the one where Kid and Play dance-battle Sidney and Sharane. That’s not what this post is about, though. This is a look at its second-most-famous scene: the freestyle rap battle between Kid and Play.
When I first watched the movie, I was 10 or 11 years old. The characters I’d assumed were the movie’s evil bits were either Obviously Evil (the least threatening version of evil, FYI) or Actually Good, and all my time was consumed with disliking them, which is how I missed the Secretly Evil character, the most dastardly character, the most devious character.
The Obviously Evil characters were obviously the members of Full Force, obviously. That was the group of bullies who beat up Kid in the beginning of the movie and then spent the rest of it trying to beat him up again. They were the easiest to identify.
The character I’d thought was evil who was Actually Good was Kid’s father. I’d labeled him evil because he refused to let Kid go to the house party after he found out Kid got in the fight with Full Force earlier in the day at school. But when I rewatched the movie as an adult, oh man, Kid’s father is a glowing guardian. He’s raising Kid on his own. He’s a hard worker (we see him fall asleep almost immediately when he lies down in his bed after a night of work, and this is after he makes Kid a large breakfast and wakes him up to get ready for school; we see him despondent that he didn’t get the overtime work he was hoping for, etc). He has an enlightened view of the world (he doesn’t chastise Kid for getting into a fight, only for being provoked) and is a purposeful caretaker (he wanders the neighborhood all night looking for Kid when he realizes he’s gone, and not just because he wants him home, but because he knows the guys Kid got into the fight with are out there looking for him too). Robin Harris was a top-tier dad in House Party and I will go to my grave apologizing for not seeing that earlier.
So that leaves the Secretly Evil character, the scourge, the scoundrel, the miscreant, the Devil’s secretary: Play.
I’d missed it so many times. Maybe I wanted to. He was so cool, so handsome, so in control. His villainy is undeniable, though. There were at least six blinking red lights that I missed, and I’m sure there are some others that will be easier to see once I stop crying.
- He sat and watched when Full Force beat up Kid in the cafeteria. This, I suppose, is at least a little bit understandable. The Full Force guys are very big and very violent (one of them is a sociopath named Stab who tries to set a house full of people on fire so he can hit them with a baseball bat and lead pipe when they come running out). Sometimes being a good friend is helping your friend when he’s getting beaten up, but sometimes being a good friend just isn’t that important.
- He stood up Bilal when he was supposed to pick him up. Play convinced Bilal (Martin Lawrence) to DJ his party for free, which is understandable because they appeared to be close friends (they sat across from each other at the same table during lunch). But Play shows up late to pick up Bilal after Bilal has already readied his crates and crates of equipment, and being late is inconsiderate.
- He tore up Bilal’s DJ equipment. When Play finally did show up to pick up Bilal, he arrived in a car far too small to adequately hold them (plus a girl Play was hoping to have sex with) and all of Bilal’s equipment. Play claimed he was good at packing things “scientifically,” then proceeded to throw/kick/mangle/destroy much of it, one of the big speakers in particular. And then guess what? THIS MOTHERFUCKER STILL DIDN’T PICK BILAL UP. He left him there because there wasn’t room in the car for him. He said he’d be right back. He showed up a couple hours later.
- He left Kid on the side of the road. This happens as Kid is running away from Full Force as he tries to navigate his way to Play’s party. Bilal sees Kid shouting and jumping up and down on the side of the road trying to get Play to stop the car. He tells Play. Plays tell him to buzz off because there are too many girls in the car to make room for Kid, which is almost certainly untrue because the car is a hatchback and all of the DJ equipment has been emptied out already.
- He tried to establish a microphone monopoly. Play told Bilal not to let anyone else besides him use the microphone to rap because it’s his party, and he’s the only one who gets to rap on some true second-grader shit.
- He tried to convince Kid to have unprotected sex. This one is certainly the most egregious offense. Even though it doesn’t happen until after the rap-battle scene, it’s important because it is basically the best and least-defensible example of how much of a not-nice person he is. Near the very end of the movie, after Kid and Sidney kiss in front of Play and Bilal after they all drop her off at her house, Kid gets back in the car and Play asks Kid to tell him about his hookup with Sidney. Kid tells him they didn’t have sex because he didn’t have a condom. Play makes fun of him, says Kid doesn’t need birth control because he’s not the one who gets pregnant. (“Yo, man. That’s her problem.”) When Kid bucks back, saying that that isn’t right, Play mocks him, telling him he sounds like his dad, then reasserts that birth control is unnecessary, because, OK, even if she gets pregnant, Kid can just make her get an abortion. (“Just pay the price.”) Play is a villain.
Now, the freestyle rap battle: It happens two-thirds of the way into the movie. And it’s SOOOOOOOOOOO heavy, man. I don’t know for certain that God and the Devil exist, but when Kid and Play rap against each other in House Party, I have to believe they’re avatars for things greater than themselves, and if it’s not God and the Devil then it’s at least for the idea of good vs. evil. There are two rounds to the battle, and each person gets to rap once per round. Play goes first.
Play, Round 1
Play opens with the “It’s the P-L-A-Y / just here to say hi / asking you may I / tell you ’bout the day I” line, and it’s clear early on that this is very deep water. The multisyllabic rhyme pattern is a deft trick made to look simple, and I can’t help but feel like that’s because the Devil is a deft trickster and so his minions are too. Play even high-fives a partygoer at the “day I” conclusion to celebrate his seamless navigation, and lo, another soul has been captured. He refers to himself as a champion. He implies that he’d like to have sex with all of the women in the room when the party’s over (“Make sure you step soon / fellas at the back door, girls by the bedroom”), and then openly admits his plans to discard them all (“another notch in the belt”). He finishes by claiming that he’d emerge victorious in any sort of rap battle, and he collects another high five as he ends his verse, and lo, a second soul has been blackened. Kid approaches, and Play, full of hubris, thinks it’s to congratulate him (“Yeah, dope, ain’t it?”). Kid, though, puppet of the Lord, jumps into the abyss.
Kid, Round 1
Kid’s verse, while sharp and delivered with an archer’s accuracy, lacks any true punch. Had he gone first, I imagine he’d have engendered a much bigger response. But Play set the tone; pride, sex, gluttonous disrespect moved the crowd.
Kid is playing pickup basketball in Gomorrah and trying to get a three-seconds call.
Play wins Round 1.
Play, Final Round
Sensing defeat, Play psycho-swoops down to tear Kid’s flattop from his head. He’s confrontational (“It’s my party and I’ll rhyme if I want to”), he makes fun of Kid’s appearance (“Come on, place your bets / Is it gonna be me or Eraserhead”), calls him “poor,” which might be a dig at Kid coming from a single-parent household. He threatens to beat up Kid (“One false move and you’ll get your ass whipped”), takes an exceptionally cheap shot (“I’m ready to serve you / If you can stay out past your pop’s curfew”), then piles on even more insults (calls him a “has-been” and offers to put him to sleep, which is possibly a metaphor for literally killing him, though I can’t be sure). And for sure there are four more high fives at the end, because the Devil is thirsty always.
The whole verse is a monster-mega-super death blow. I don’t imagine anyone would’ve blamed Kid for simply walking away at that point, or maybe even punching Play in the teeth. But Kid is a hero. Kid has the strength of a thousand lions and the courage of a hundred more.
Kid, Final Round
Kid’s verse, it’s beautiful. He starts by dismissing Play entirely (“The boy’s blowin’ smoke / ’bout what he wanna be / But it isn’t, wasn’t, and it ain’t never gonna be”), cusses without cussing (“When you rhyme, oooh, there’s lots of bull … ”), then does it again in an even more embarrassing manner (“Kid spelled backward describes you best”), and that’s when we see the turn. The crowd screams and yells and now they’re fully on Kid’s side and Play, poor Play — his strength siphoned away and the Devil having disappeared back into the ground and taking his dark energy with him— is naked and waiting only to be slain. Kid sets a trap for Play (“You issued a challenge, yeah you threw it up / Step to the stage … ”) and when Play takes the bait and walks out and reaches for the mic, Kid rebukes him (“… too late, I blew it up”). Kid paws at him a bit for a second, then snatches his heart from his chest. “There’s no missing the words that I laid out,” he says, and Play watches and waits to die, “You didn’t play, you just got played out,” and OHHHHHHHHHH FUUUUUUUUUUUU.
It’s beautiful. It’s gorgeous. It’s undeniable. Play won the first round, yes, for sure, but Kid exploded his everything with a nuclear bomb.
Who won the scene?
Kid won the scene.
Good won the scene.
The only shadows are the ones cast by the limbs of the dismembered evil scattered across heaven’s floor.