"The USA is spooky to me—it holds so much history."
If genius is a person's ability to reinvent oneself, Mapei has earned the distinction. Born in Providence, RI and transplanted to Stockholm, Sweden, Jacqueline Mapei Cummings emerged in 2007 with "Video Vixens," an underground hit about a lazy, porn-surfing dude and his fed-up girlfriend. Her 2012 Downtown Records debut Cocoa Butter Diaries blended boom-bap beats and socially conscious lyrics—soulfulness with a touch of the bizarre. But after a short hiatus, she took a complete 180, shedding her rap roots with her 2013 indie-pop smash “Don’t Wait.” Her dual rapping/singing skills have drawn comparisons to Lauryn Hill—a righteous collation—but her new direction recalls a bow to pop Ms. Hill couldn't, or wouldn't, make. Today she drops “Change,” a call-to-arms for lovers across the world built on boisterous arena-pop tailored to sweep new fans. Mapei jokingly warned me that I'd probably "hate" some of the pop on her upcoming LP Hey Hey, due September 23rd via Downtown, and the snob in me thought she may be right. But the previews I've heard of the soulful ballads tucked in the LP has me braced for the further change to come. Before she heads on tour with John Legend this August, I caught up with Mapei for a short, light talk about family, fears, and new frontiers.
What kind of music do you like? I like rock music a lot. Rock makes me want to get freaky. Like the Queens of the Stone Age's, "Go With the Flow"--I would get married and divorced to that song. I can go with the flow. I like Mars Volta.
You moved from Sweden back to Providence, RI a few months ago. What has that been like? Well, my cousin started a basketball camp; he had the nation's leading score in basketball. He was in Sports Illustrated. My niece started a smoothie company, so she's selling smoothies. My father is an activist; he has a picture in City Hall for his contributions on Dr. Martin Luther King day. He writes for a magazine called Workers World right now. My stepmother is running for city council, and currently playing some R Kelly-type gospel music and burning incense in the background. It's cool I get to be with my family. In short, Providence is ghetto: loads of fat people. It's like a cold Compton. People getting shot everyday, liquor stores, churches.
What is your earliest memory? The earliest memory I have is my sister Erica playing with me in my playpen. I can't remember what she was saying, but she was reaching for me and stroking.
What type of student were you in grade school? Favorite subject? My favorite subject was art, of course. I got good grades, but I was bad.
How so? I had FILA gear on and used to ask the teachers what they were looking at.
Few artists are able to switch from underground to pop, yet you seem to do it effortlessly. How does that happen? I come from both worlds. I'm a product of pop, nurtured by the underground. I love stupid songs, like Miley Cyrus's "23," that's my song. I always wanted to sing, but I was apprehensive because in Sweden, people wanted me to rap and be a stereotypical black person. They wanted me to be hard and masculine. With my new album, I wanted to show my feminine side and make pop songs about love. I wanted to bring back the feeling of early Michael Jackson. My issue now is my English. I have a hard time expressing myself in English since I think in Swedish. Swedish has become my first language, so I don't like talking to Americans that much because I feel like I sound stupid. Maybe I am going through some premature phase but I feel really down. Musically though, I feel on point.
What creeps you out? Oldies are spooky to me, so are comic book stores and vintage stores and New England-style houses. The USA is spooky to me—it holds so much history. The world is spooky (laughs).
How do you feel when people compliment you? It does not happen that often, so it feels mad good, especially from folks I respect.
What are two qualities about yourself you admire? Modesty and generosity.
Where do you see your music career taking you? I'm making music from my heart; where it goes, I’ve yet to see, but I would like to perform in front of lots of people.