Laughter holds a weird place in recorded music. It can be ignored easily, as it remains in limbo between the vocal and the instrumental. Within this ambiguous space, sounds pop up and disappear like hints of spice, giving the music its flavor without being central or even necessary for its creation. As an art form fascinated by the spaces between lyrics and music, laughter is essential to hip-hop.
Laughter in hip-hop can be used to underline the message of individual bars or enrich the emotional hue of a beat, like the air horn or a gunshot. A rapper’s laughter can also become an extension of their artistic personality, through ad-libs and unique flows.
One only needs to compare Jeezy’s hearty chortles on “I Luv It” with Wiz Khalifa’s endearing stoner giggles on “Roll Up,” or Rico Nasty’s unnerving cackles on “Guap (LaLaLa),” to realize laughter in hip-hop is more than a whimsical afterthought or a cloying nod to listeners. For Jeezy, laughter is a celebration of his freedom and a shield against the threats of death and incarceration. For Wiz, it’s an effect of his state of elation—thanks in part to weed but mostly to his being in love. And for Rico, laughter is a weapon used to intimidate foes and silence detractors while appearing unfazed by outside attacks.
To better understand the role of laughter in hip-hop, though, let’s start with Flavor Flav, who has perfected the use of laughter as a commercial trademark. As the oddball counterpoint to Chuck D’s acerbic social commentary on Public Enemy, Flav’s laughter has been a critical feature of his character, even on tracks where his lyrical contributions are limited.
On “Bring the Noise,” Flav’s brief laughter on the intro sets the tone of confidence that imbues Chuck’s rebuke of the music industry. This short burst immediately gives way to Flav’s trademark “yeahhh boyyy,” a brief sequence that would repeat itself on later Public Enemy tracks. Flav’s laughter becomes intertwined with his catchphrase, and both herald his arrival as an exuberant hype man while establishing his outlandish public image.
Flav’s solo tracks on Public Enemy albums carry this cocksure quality even further. “Can’t Do Nuttin' For Ya Man” sees Flav refusing to keep helping a friend in need, a lesson in self-reliance that soon turns denigrating. After throwing petty insults at his hapless acquaintance on the track’s outro, he goes on a chortling frenzy that lingers on even after the music stops. This grating sound, detached from the track’s plot, turns attention to Flav himself and reverberates as an emblem of his persona. This emblem has persisted throughout Flav’s career, extending beyond his music and across media platforms.
Nicki Minaj has also mastered laughter as a trademark. Like Flav’s signature chortles, Nicki’s distinct laughter is elongated, multi-part, and continuously on the verge of collapse. In another resemblance to Flav, specifically on “Can’t Do Nuttin',” Nicki’s laughter often appears near the end of a track. Following proper verses, its length and abrasiveness can be utilized most efficiently to eclipse the sparse, half-spoken outro lyrics.
Nicki famously cemented her trademark laughter on her 2014 hit single “Anaconda,” where it augments the brash, confrontational body positivity offered by the music. As she celebrates herself and derides less-endowed women on the extended outro, Nicki moves from maniacal cackle to breathless shriek to tongue trill in rapid sequence. This burst of quirky energy halts the track’s narrative, forcing listeners to focus their attention on the narrator herself and the unbridled nature of her artistry.
This pattern of laughter reappears on “Chun Swae,” a track on her 2018 album Queen, where it functions more explicitly as an extension of Nicki’s personality. Again, the laughter arrives near the track’s conclusion, after Nicki informs listeners they’re halfway through the record. She ends the track by proclaiming her love for her fans. Nicki’s seemingly unhinged laughter thus becomes a reflexive act, conscious of its place both within the record and Nicki’s entire oeuvre. By evoking her earlier work, Nicki offers her fans a gigantic, glow-in-the-dark Easter egg symbolizing their appreciation for her brazen artistic persona.
For both Flavor Flav and Nicki Minaj, laughter is an assertion of identity, an ostensibly narrative device that ends up as the author’s metatextual signature. Yet, beginning as laughter at someone, it also hints at the construction of power relations through mockery by setting boundaries between the laugher and the party being laughed at. These boundaries collapse as the laughter lingers on and strays away from the plot, but they are kept intact in the work of rappers like 50 Cent, whose laughter is more focused and contained.
On 50’s “Back Down,” the target of laughter is Ja Rule, whom 50 had been feuding with at the time of its release. On this mean-spirited diss track, laughter is notable not for its loudness but for its persistence. 50 giggles briefly and repeatedly throughout the track to emphasize his invulnerability and his dismissal of Ja, without dragging attention away from the devastating lyrical blows he lands. The laughter is even mixed with the main vocals to stress the poignancy of lines like: “You’s a Pop-Tart, sweetheart, you soft in the middle / I eat ya for breakfast.”
50 doubles down on portraying Ja Rule as a joke, both through sharp punchlines and by sprinkling giggles across the track. Although the vocal delivery is fierce, the humorous approach diffuses the seriousness of the situation, which is precisely what consolidates 50’s position as the untouchable winner. The track denies Ja of the threatening tone usually found on diss tracks as if he’s unworthy of such brutality. Despite some violent imagery, the primary mood of “Back Down” is condescension, with laughter being the main signifier of 50’s perceived superiority in the feud.
As opposed to the needless, deeply homophobic skit closing out the track, 50’s laughter on “Back Down” captures the triumphant essence precisely because it sounds subtle and natural. On the other hand, the laughter on 50’s “Straight to the Bank” (provided by Tony Yayo) is pompous and contrived, amplifying the scorn of “Back Down” while dialing down its playfulness. The result is a display of arrogance fitting the disdainful track, yet less engaging than “Back Down” and its sardonic, purposeful jokes.
The obnoxious, fake laughter we find on “Straight to the Bank” also appears on Chief Keef’s perfectly-titled “Laughin’ to the Bank.” Deranged cackles permeate the background on Keef’s track, while his feigned chortle carries over to the flow of the verses. On both tracks, laughter is front and center, emitting an air of snark that complements the material excess of the lyrics. It feels as though the rappers’ financial gains have forced them to adopt a more snobbish, seemingly upper-class manner of laughter, to fit their new status and the confidence it entails.
Laughter in hip-hop does not always signify self-assurance or reflect a position of power, however. It can also symbolize a narrator’s weakness, helplessness, or instability. A great example of this distressful usage of laughter comes from one of the earliest and most iconic instances of hip-hop laughter: “The Message” by Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five.
Melle Mel’s laughter on “The Message” sounds forced and disingenuous, although in a less derisive way than 50 Cent and Chief Keef on their bank songs. Yet this repeated appearance—immediately following the couplet “Don’t push me 'cause I’m close to the edge / I’m trying not to lose my head”—lends the laughter its power as an expression of Melle’s anxiety in the face of violence, poverty, and institutional corruption. The plastic nature of this monotonous chuckle adds an organic element to the track, as Melle nervously tries to hide his fear and desperation, an act which only underlines them.
The first prominent example of laughter in hip-hop, “The Message” has reverberated in the work of later rappers who have incorporated laughter to convey a wide gamut of emotions. Eminem, in particular, has exploited the disturbing potential of laughing on record, which Melle Mel has pointed at, employing it as an integral part of the horrorcore tales of his early records.
On The Marshall Mathers LP, released in 2000, Eminem opens the track “Kill You” with a chilling statement of purpose, responding to critics of his gory lyrics with threats of even more graphic violence. The track, like much of Em’s work, revels in the ambiguous relations between Marshall Mathers as a person, his rap persona, and his Slim Shady alter-ego. When Em chuckles during the hook after issuing the titular warning, it might sound like he breaks character as Shady.
However, the laughter only adds to the aura of mental instability and imminent danger, depicting Em as a psychopath taking pleasure in his victims’ fear and suffering. The sparse beat exacerbates the eeriness of the scenario, as it goes silent before the detached chuckles come in. This understanding of the laughter on “Kill You” casts doubt on Em’s claim at the end of the track—“I’m just playing, ladies / You know I love you”—which does little to alleviate the sense of unease created on the hook and throughout the track.
Despite all of this apparent negativity, laughter can still be a signifier of wholesome joy, as it does in the work of Lizzo, especially on her album, Cuz I Love You, released in April 2019. On “Juice,” it takes center stage as it leads into the chorus after the line: “Heard you say I’m not the baddest, bitch, you lie.” What could have come off as plainly dismissive, like 50 Cent’s laughter, instead becomes part of the carefree and self-assured spirit of the track. Lizzo unapologetically celebrates her self-worth, with help from her friends who provide backing vocals and add their giggles.
“Juice” ends with a final burst of laughter, segueing into the muffled chuckle that opens the album’s next track, “Soulmate.” This internal laughter contrasts with the boisterous, communal giggles on “Juice,” suggesting a certain shyness she gradually sheds during her bold declaration of self-reliance. This process culminates with a distant but loud chuckle, following the line: “Imma marry me one day.” Lizzo lets her laughter roll out without overpowering the music and lyrics, signaling the pure joy and harmony she has found within herself.
With all of these clear examples in mind, we can fully appreciate the artistic potential of laughter in hip-hop. Whether arrogant, exhilarating, or unsettling, laughter in hip-hop is a powerful device for telling stories, evoking emotions, and creating brands. Each rapper has their style of laughter, and their unique purpose for it, but they all encourage us to listen carefully to the odd spaces between the bars and the beats.