Ghostface Killah: A Critique of Patriarchal Masculinity

You had to be a nasty girl to try to play me

After watching the new documentary Amy, I’ve found myself revisiting the catalog of an artist whose creative work was cut tragically short. Sadly, there’s not a lot there beyond her two albums and a few odds and ends. Perhaps my favorite of her songs is actually the remix of “You Know I’m No Good” featuring Ghostface Killah. To Winehouse’s lyrics about the romantic travails of a bad girl who drinks Tanqueray and luxuriates in “Jamaica and Spain,” Ghostface adds a predictably testosterone-laden counterpoint. He’s the guy whose girl is telling him that he better watch out, because she’s no good. And he has something to say in return.

What could have been a lot of macho posturing, though, turns out to be a surprisingly subtle dialogue between the two, in which all sorts of masculine anxieties rise to the surface. Winehouse is the one in charge, though Ghostface tries to position himself as if he’s in control of the situation. “I know we were free to sleep around town,” the rapper admits, “but I figured you said that because it’s how I get down.” Translation: I thought you were kidding about the open relationship thing, because obviously I’m a player (which is totally cool), but I didn’t think you would go through with it yourself!

But he’s no fool. “Nah, of course, you was out there messing around,” Ghostface goes on. “I should’ve told you, once you go Ghost, you never go back.” There’s the problem. He neglected to explain to her that once she’s been pleasured by him, no one else could compete. Amy must have missed the memo.

Ghostface is nothing if not reasonable. “We need to straighten this out, get to the bottom of it all”—couples’ therapy, maybe? “Let me ride with you, talk about your mistakes,” he says, “You cheated yourself but these are the breaks” (alluding to Kurtis Blow’s 1980 track “The Breaks,” a song at least partly about unfaithful women). Really, Amy, you’re only hurting yourself. Despite his bruised ego and her evident infidelity, he’s still concerned about her wellbeing.

In the next verse, we find Ghostface taking action. “Oh what a web we weave,” he muses, “but you played me, so I had to roll up my sleeves and hunt you down, holding the next man’s stacks, and now you sorry, tryin’ to bring that old thing back…” Earlier in the song he implies that she was stalking him, but it’s Ghostface who “hunts” her down in a jealous rage. “It’s a shame how you can’t get me off the brain,” he says—a telling comment, since in reality it seems like it’s the other way around. In the end, the two characters appear to have some hate sex and/or makeup sex—“You love how I bring the pain, got the rug burns stinging and you’re saying my name. Say my name!”

She says his name. In spite of everything that happened, masculine authority has been restored—at least for a moment. But Amy being Amy, we know how this story will end. Only nasty girls would be so promiscuous and self-assured—the sort of behavior to be expected from a male player—but in the end Ghostface still can’t resist. The gender script has been flipped, from the typical rapper boasting about his sexual conquests to a hip-hop artist revealing his vulnerability to a woman who swaggers with the best of them—who sleeps around, spends his money, and hurts his pride, but remains irresistible, despite her self-professed badness. He doesn’t call her a bitch or a ho (the usual abuse heaped on a woman who crosses the kinds of lines men transgress with ease), just a “nasty girl.” Nasty or not, Ghostface assures her in the next breath, “Don’t worry, I’m gonna be around forever.” Maybe our dearly departed Amy was like Big Pun in the end—she wasn’t a player, she just fucked a lot.

amy winehouse