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Lauren Jackson

Lauren Jackson is a third year PhD student in the Department of English Language and Literature at the University of Chicago. Her writing has appeared in The Atlantic, The New Inquiry, and The Awl among other places. With interests in dialect, sound, and linguistic diffusion, her work tracks moments of misrecognition in the ongoing entextualization of Black vernacular in 19th-, 20th-, and 21st-century American literature.

“‘My Presence is a Present’: Kanye West, Nicki Minaj, and the Laughter of the Rapper”
A feature of the all-around bombasticity of their Black identity, Kanye West’s and Nicki Minaj’s laughter—at once fascinating and distasteful to rap audiences—erupts, interrupts, and lingers. West is unfraid to be ugly, throaty, and punctuates his verses with a disturbance of his own making. Minaj’s sound readily plays with distortion and vocal fry, stretching vowels to nearly unbearable lengths of time and inspiring user-created YouTube videos that loop her laughs for hours. Though we still think of laughter as involuntary and vulnerable, these rappers literally flip the script, demand our attention, and truly give themselves the last laugh.

This paper explores the presence of laughter in rap music, those phatic and artificial sounds, or “Black noise” invented by artists West and Minaj that frequently arise as uncomfortable interjections in their music. Tricia Rose’s “Black noise” remains an apt term in this era of hip-hop, a contemporary moment in many ways marked by the digitized inflection and beyond-human distortion of beats and voice. “Black noise” captures the sounds and scenes in rap that escape lyric and beg the question, “What can rappers say without words?”. Sounds such as laughter, the disembodied ha’s that enter a track, jar us into discomfort or surprised pleasure. From MC Melle Mel’s mocking resonance on “The Message” and Cozmo D’s entrance in Newcleus’s “Jam On It” to West’s Midwest-inflected “huh”/“heah”/“ha” and Minaj’s extravagant giddiness on 2014’s “Anaconda,” laughter in rap music demonstrates the sonic authority of the rapper’s voice and acknowledges the relationship between bravado, individuality, and dis-harmony so important to the genre.

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