Mapei is all about keeping it positive. The voice behind one of this summer's sweetest pop songs has come a long way since the days when she tried her hand as a rapper. A newfound confidence in her singing voice allowed her to make her latest album, Hey Hey. Crafted in Stockholm, where the Rhode Island-born songstress spent the better part of her childhood, the album, which is her second released through Downtown Records, is decidedly more pop than anything she's put out before. Her shimmering performance of "Don't Wait" on the Letterman stage last week proved as much.
Go back through her catalog and you can hear the progression. Her 2008 track, "Video Vixens," was a catchy dance-rap tune with tongue-in-cheek lyrics about being a part of our lazy, video game-playing generation that's a product of both Wu-Tang and American Idol. The video caught some attention, and the next year she put out the EP Cocoa Butter Diaries, a collection of conscious-leaning rap songs with throwback hip-hop production. After taking a few years to travel to places like Brazil and Ethiopia, she went back to Sweden to write.
The result is an album that encompasses an array of influences a less-seasoned songwriter would have a hard time meshing together. Somewhere between East Coast hip-hop, sun-drenched European pop, and African drum patterns, Mapei found her fit. We sat down with her to talk about growing up in Sweden, loving Max Martin and Madonna, and the best part of living back in the U.S. with her family.
Your album Hey Hey seems like it draws from a crazy breadth of influences. What are its essential building blocks?
I would just say they come from a positive, uplifting place. I just want to project my energy towards positivity and have fun. I recorded it in a dark place in Sweden. It gets dark in the winter there early, and there isn’t a lot to do. So I just went into the studio and created something that made me feel good. Different people I’ve come across inspire me; chilling with old ladies on their porches in Brazilian favelas, or rundown New England houses in Providence.
You started as a rapper—I remember a couple of the tracks you did with Major Lazer and Spank Rock really early on. What hip-hop albums/rappers were important to your formation as an artist?
Well, I loved the dead prez album when it came out. I can really relate to that, and I opened up for them when I was 15. The Nas album It Was Written, I love the song “Affirmative Action.” If I could do that at a karaoke bar I would kill it. [Laughs.] Those albums were important. Madonna’s Ray of Light, I love the spirituality that she portrays in that album.
Are you a spiritual person?
I try to be. I don’t know the meaning of life, so I just try to keep it in the spirits’ hands. I believe I have a guardian spirit that protects me. I don’t pray or anything, but I would like to do that. Visiting Rhode Island a lot of people I know go to church. It’s serene.
Is that something that comes from your family, that connection to spirituality?
No. I just think that growing up alone in Sweden connected me to nature. I believe we come from something, I don’t know what. I would call it God I guess.
What do you think makes Swedish musicians so good at pop music?
People there just want to escape. They are very competitive. America is like the dream world; it’s like Disneyland. They want to live that, but at the same time they don’t know the corruption and lies that exist here.
America is like the dream world; it’s like Disneyland.
That’s true. What do you mean it’s competitive?
In Sweden? They are very spoiled and lucky, they get free education, free health care. It’s very informative there. They inform you about your sexuality, so people are ideal humans in a way. They want to be the best at everything, because there isn’t any poverty there. There is a lot of discrimination, but there isn’t that much pressure.
How is it being back in the U.S.?
I mean it’s cool, but it’s a tough country. You have to have hard skin, but there’s a lot to see. It’s like different worlds, so extreme. There’s poverty, then there are billionaires. Everyone listens to hip-hop, and it seems like a big thing, but they don’t like.... I don’t know.
Maybe they don’t know why they listen to hip-hop?
Or like, what people go through who make that music.
What’s the best/worst thing about being back in the U.S.?
The best thing is being with my family, going to sneaker stores, watching basketball games, that hip-hop feeling that exists here. The worst thing is that there are so many homeless people.
That seems to affect you in a very real way.
You can go to a project building and then across the street there are brownstones where people pay like $3,000 to live there. It’s crazy.
Do you feel like there is a message that is important for you to get out there as an artist?
I feel like if you can take responsibility you should. But, I think we are here to give people a sort of escapism whether they’re feeling bad or good. They can dance to music, cry to music. I think that’s what I’m here to do. The message can be love, or wanting change. It can be something uplifting.
Two tracks on Hey Hey, “Don’t Wait” and “Believe,” both seem to put out a pretty love-first vibe. Is that how you live your life?
That’s how I want to live my life. That’s how I’ve learned to be growing up in different settings. Being discriminated against you have to be strong and be positive or else you’re going to be destructive. I keep a sort of innocence to my music.
Being discriminated against you have to be strong and be positive or else you’re going to be destructive.
Was it a conflicting choice for you to move into pop music? You’ve made electronic music, hip-hop, folk music, and here you are. Was it a battle?
Not really a battle. I’ve always had that pop flavor in me. Growing up I listened to pop. Like, Max Martin was a really big influence in the way he structured songs. I always wanted to do it. Hip-hop is like homework or writing an essay; you have to be really on point. Singing is just more fun. I had fun in the studio, and that’s what came out.
Is there another place in the world that made an indelible mark on you?
I would say Ethiopia because it feels like another world. It feels like a happy place because people are happy, they are not pretentious, they are giving even though they don’t have that much. They’re like, "Come to my house and eat." You wouldn’t find that here unless people want something.
It’s a different form of happiness, and that’s what you are going for?
I would love to move there one day, but yeah I’m going for that. I just want to be in a positive place in my life.