All photos by By Ruben Sznajderman
Mapei is full of curveballs. The Rhode Island-born, Sweden-raised singer spent the last decade as a fixture on Stockholm’s underground rap scene—but on her debut LP, Hey Hey, she’s mostly turned to pop. It’s an unpredictable album, not just because it’s an experiment for Mapei as she road tests a new sound, but also each song is a stylistic turn as she swerves between her hip-hop roots, shiny hooks, and R&B.
Tracks like “Come On Baby,” demonstrate Mapei’s rap pedigree, cleverly rhyming “I got a pocket full of love and a car full of soup” over a techno thump. While others like the soulful 60s-inspired “Baby It’s You” and endearing ballad “Blame It On Me,” are sugary love songs. “Don’t Wait,” Mapei’s viral neo-doo-wop track from last year—which Chance the Rapper later remixed—also made the cut. But even if it hadn’t, Hey Hey would be a strong debut. Producer Magnus Lidehäll helped streamline her genre-skipping sound and his background working with dance-floor mainstays like Katy Perry and Kylie Minogue shines through on the album’s big beats and swirling synths.
Before heading out on a nationwide tour with Lykke Li, the singer—born Jacqueline Mapei Cummings—passed through New York to do some press and to catch a set by Raury (who, like all of us, she can’t get enough of). We stole some time with her to find out about her international upbringing, what it was like to collaborate with Chance, and how she went from dropping rhymes to belting out radio-ready anthems like “Change.”
Noisey: You’re heading out on tour with Lykke Li this week. How’d that come about?
Mapei: We’ve known each other for a long time, but we hadn’t really spoken in awhile. She wrote me on Facebook and was like, “Can you come tour with me?” I said, “Yes,” and she said, “This is going to be legendary, like Lou Reed vibes!” So we’re going to go on tour, and it’s going to be interesting…I hope her crowd likes what I’m doing because we make such different kinds of music. I hope they’re not weirded out.
True or false: You guys used to be roommates?
Well, I had an apartment in Bushwick and she rented a room there. She came to one of my shows in Sweden and she asked me for advice about getting into music. I told her to go to New York, because that’s where I learned to performed. I would go to this club called the Eclectic Ride, you’d see Mos Def freestyling. It was a very neo-soul vibe. I’d see girls belting and singing their hearts out. In Sweden, girls are much more timid.
So you grew up in Sweden, but you’ve lived in the U.S., too. Whose music scene do you dig the most?
I fit in with more of a Swedish clique. There’s a scene there that does soul and hip-hop, and it’s very inspired by American music. It’s even a little poppy. I can also be into the American scene, but I’m a little more hood than the hipster community. I would travel to America every summer and chill in the hood and listen to loud music and watch basketball games, then I would write about it. Spank Rock, Amanda Blank—I can relate to that. That’s the kind of music I’d do back in the day.
I have one foot in America and one foot in Sweden, and that’s how I would describe my life. I fit in in both worlds…or none of them.
You were really into the underground hip-hop scene over there, and your new album is a huge departure from your old stuff. Why the change?
It’s way more positive now. The music I did before had more of a dark side. Now, it’s more me. I’ve grown up and I’m not trying to be cool, or make weird music. Stylistically and sonically, it all connects.
I want it to be more feminine and pretty now. If you put out a certain energy into the world, you’re going to get it back. I’m tired of being dark and angry, or trying to shock. I decided to challenge myself to do what I really want to do.
What was the catalyst for the shift in tone?
It feels like my life has been a musical, and that I’ve been writing different chapters for it. I think in music. The way I approach things is very cerebral.
Five years ago, you were a full-fledged rapper. Would you ever guess you’d be where you are now?
I always thought I’d be where I am now. I never thought I’d be in that hip-hop scene. I didn’t know people would think I was so cool in Sweden, or that people would think I was a good rapper. It’s not like I was as good as, like, Nas, but people really saw me as a rapper there.
How did Chance the Rapper’s “Don’t Wait” remix happen?
I had heard that he liked my song. I went to his show in Sweden and met him, and thought, “Maybe we can get Chance the Rapper on my record…” So he did a remix on it, and he did a such a good job on it.
Magnus Lidehäll, who’s worked with everyone from Sky Ferreira to Britney Spears, produced your record. What was that like?
He has incredible taste, and he understands me. He doesn’t argue with me, he just helps me develop my ideas. He’s a good friend who I can just tell my ideas to. He’s a really cool dude.
In your own words, the album sounds…
…like a rainbow. It’s very colorful. It’s like a little kid drawing a cute picture. It’s as if Stevie Wonder and Michael Jackson were to sit down and improvise. I’m not saying it’s as good as their music, but [it sounds like] if they were just to sit down, freestyling in the studio.
Other than Stevie and Michael, who influences your sound?
I’ve been singing along to Mary J. Blige for a long time. Lots of different albums, too. It Was Written [by Nas], I love. I listen to Madonna’s Ray of Light, and also [Radiohead's] OK Computer. If you listen to something on repeat, it stays in your blood.
What was your childhood in Sweden like?
I grew up with different cultures—black, white, Persian, French. One of my best friends was from Thailand. It kept me open-minded, but it was also very tough because I went through discrimination and a lot of racism. I was either exotic, or I was just weird. I spent a lot of time trying to find myself as a child.
Did you start writing songs at a young age?
I designed album covers when I was 12. I had writing classes and I would try to write songs, but I don’t really know how or where that came from.
OK, I have to ask: Your style is rad, so is fashion something you’re into?
I don’t put a lot of thought into it, but growing up as a girl, you follow fashion, you want to look good, you want to have swag. I like being cool on stage. I can’t wear heels. I like to wear sneakers. I like the hippie style thing—like, sixties stuff—especially at festivals. I have mad clothes. Sometimes I’ll ask designers if they can hook me up, and I go to vintage stores to find clothes I can wear on stage.
Casey Lewis is also a sneakers kind of girl. She's on Twitter - @caseymlewis.