Over the past few years, the boundaries separating pop, hip-hop, R&B and dance have become increasingly porous. Turn on the radio and you’ll be greeted by a cocktail of all of those genres in a single song. Mapei‘s music is the perfect articulation of that shift. The Rhode Island-born, Sweden-raised artist, who got her start as an underground rapper, weaves together a handful of genres, sometimes all at once. Her debut album Hey Hey was produced by pop veteran Magnus Lidehäll, who’s worked with everyone from Britney Spears to Kylie Minogue to Katy Perry, and his steady hand helped unify Mapei’s disparate musical impulses. “People have a hard time categorizing me,” she says. “I don’t know if there’s a word for my style, it’s just me drawing from different genres and putting these sounds into one collage.”
We caught up with Mapei over the phone to talk about being an outcast, coming up in Sweden’s alternative scene with Lykke Li and using pop to promote positive messages.
How long have you been working on your album?
Seven months all together. I started a year and a half ago, then took a break. I had a boyfriend at the time and I wanted to travel. He was like, “Let’s go to my home in Brazil,” so we went to North Brazil in Recife and I got even more inspired. It reminds me of the U.S. in a way, because there was old rundown houses like where I come from in Rhode Island — and the diversity of South American and Afro-Brazilian people reminds me of cities that are diverse in the States.
Did you do anything related to music while you were there? You’ve talked about taking influence from Baile funk before.
No, I just was by the beach and singing to myself but I didn’t really write. I was enjoying the food and living life. You’re only young once, and I had the opportunity to travel, so I wanted to take it. I believe in traveling as much as you can to inspire yourself and see different cultures.
You’ve been in many different settings leading up to the album. Do you feel like one particular place comes across more so than others on the album?
I would say Rhode Island. I grew up with girls that played basketball and were very uplifting. Even though they went through hard times, they’d still be positive, and listen to hip-hop and Alicia Keys. They were really strong. For example, the song “Believe” reminds me of when I went to camp and we’d sing little riddles and uplift each other.
It doesn’t feel like you’ve switched gears completely from hip-hop to pop, because you blend both of those genres on the album, but when and how did you decide you were going to take a more pop approach overall?
Pop has always been in me. Growing up, you try to fit in — I was myself and unique, but I also wanted to fit in with different groups of people. I would hang out with the rockheads and listen to that music, have a boyfriend there, and then listen to a lot of hip-hop and try to find my crowd. But pop has always been something I’ve wanted to do on my own without the pressure or influence from others. I can switch it up. My next album might be spoken word. That was just what came out of me at the time.
One of the things I noticed is that the piano introduction and melody in the song “As 1″ riffs on the Spice Girls’ “When 2 Become 1″—
Wow, I love that song but I hadn’t thought of it. That’s a cool observation. It’s crazy that it’s called “As 1″ and their song is called “When 2 Become 1.”
I was asking about it because there’s an interesting play at work — the Spice Girls’ song is a love song but your song is about loving all mankind.
Yeah, there’s just something in me that wants everyone to come together as one. I don’t really understand racism. I was actually inspired by a couple in Stockholm that I saw. They looked so in love and I came up with the first line, “Lovers holding hands beneath the sky.” I brought the song to the studio and Magnus [Lidehäll] put the piano to it. [Pauses] Now I want to listen to the Spice Girls’ song.
Do think the political song has fallen out of fashion?
Yeah. Back in the day, with Bob Dylan and the Beatles, music really changed the world. I don’t want to sound like a conservative grandma, but I think today music is very explicit. I listen to the songs, but it’s very catered to having sex.
Are you hoping to bring back this kind of song?
Not necessarily a protest song but I want to talk about messages like loving thy neighbor.
Was there one incident that inspired the song “Change?”
My father inspired that. I remember going to an anti-Bush rally in Philly when I was young and opening for Dead Prez when I was 15. I’ve always been around that world. So I’m channeling his spirit in the song.
Are rap and pop different modes for different things you want to say?
I’ve listened to so much rap and my writing when I comes to singing isn’t as developed, so I’d like to develop that side more and put some of the emotions I use in rap more in my singing.
Do you see a difference in coming up as an artist in the rap world versus the pop world?
Rapping to me is doing homework, whereas singing just comes naturally and it’s fun. You have to be really on-point when rapping. It’s a competition. People are competitive. It’s only been around for 30 years. There’s a world for hip-hop and there’s a world for pop, and I don’t know where I stand. It’s very hard to categorize me.
I grew up in different worlds and I’ve been traveling back and forth. Sometimes I’m the white girl; sometimes I’m the black girl. Being mixed, you go through that a lot. If you’re in New York, you feel sort of at home because there’s diversity here and no one really judges you. But I’ve been to places where I’ve been the only minority, and it’s been weird. I think my music fits in different places: I did a Hot 97 show, then I’m opening for Lykke Li. It’s about bringing worlds together and styles together instead of being segregated.
How did you meet Lykke Li?
We’ve known each other since 2005. I was on her first album, singing background vocals, but we haven’t seen each other since, and she reached out to me recently on Facebook to come on the tour. We were in the same girl clique in Stockholm of actors and singers that were pursuing their dreams. We used to drink tea together at her apartment, and she lived in my apartment in Brooklyn for awhile. She would come up stage with me and rap sometimes.
What was the scene like in Stockholm that you belonged to?
It was open-minded, adventurous and really carefree. We would ride bikes to different galleries and get drunk. Everyone was working on different projects, doing what they love. It was like a hipster rap scene mashed up with rock. There’s a psychedelic rock group called Dungen. They’d DJ a lot of the parties and play MF Doom and A Tribe Called Quest and boom-bap music. It was like Williamsburg in a way.
Have you been excited by the transformation pop has undergone over the past few years, with the rise of more and more alt-pop artists?
It feels like they’ve taken a lot from the underground hipster and hip-hop scene. I’m not jaded towards it. I think Fergie did it right on “Fergalicious.” Sometimes it’s tasteless, but other times it’s on-point. Everything moves so fast now. I’m one of the “internet-hype artists.”
What are the things you do to make sure your album has a longer shelf life?
I just try to do what I love and what I’d like. This album was very experimental for me. I’m still growing as an artist.