Mahmood Talks Inspiration Behind 'Ghettolimpo' Album & Dream Collab With Jazmine Sullivan

Jacopo Raule / Daniele Venturelli/Getty Images

Mahmood is seen on stage during the 71th Sanremo Music Festival 2021 at Teatro Ariston on March 05, 2021 in Sanremo, Italy.

"'Ghettolimpo' does not have a religion ... Everyone should be free to think with their own thoughts," the Italian singer/songwriter tells Billboard Italy.

MILAN -- Clouds full of rain hover over Villa Litta in Lainate, on the outskirts of Milan. In a spot where art meets nature, between the marble of the statues and the green of the park, a camera crew is preparing to shoot Mahmood.

“Alessandro, are you ready for the camera test?,” asks Stefano, his manager. He quietly glances at the rooms of the Nymphaeum, examining the abundance of statues and mosaics in the recesses that hide interactive fountains. The set is ready, and a new feeling seems to flow through the veins of the young warrior.

The Italian singer-songwriter’s sophomore album, Ghettolimpo, was released June 11 via Island Records/Universal Music Italy. Ghettolimpo is the result of more than two years of production work, of elaborate thoughts and personal experiences. It is the standard of a rediscovered charm of Italian productions in the world.

The journey for Ghettolimpo started in the neighborhood of Gratosoglio, south of Milan, and passed through the success at the Sanremo and Eurovision contests in 2019.

Below, read Billboard Italy's interview with Mahmood about his latest project.

The making of the album was quite long. Is that due to the pandemic?

Not exactly. Ghettolimpo is not made of songs that I wrote recently. Its development started during a flight to Tunis [Tunisia] and lasted two years and a half in total. I have not written anything during the last period. But to be honest, when I listen to the songs today, I still recognize myself in that long creative process. I am very proud of the final result because I can clearly see the changes I went through since Gioventù Bruciata [his first album, released in 2019] from a musical, sonic and structural point of view. All of this also comes from listening to a lot of music. I figured out what kind of songs I wanted to write -- it is not up to me to say whether they are easy or difficult. Take a song like the title track. I tried to emulate the sound of the five daily prayers that I heard when I was in Egypt as a child, and then I rapped on that. In the lyrics I mention Madrid and the mixed feelings that I had back then, between the euphoria for the sold-out concert in the Spanish capital and my inner lack of self-confidence. I posted a picture where I was wearing a skirt, waiting to see my mother’s reaction, so I put that in the lyrics. That song -- and the whole album -- is filled with a mighty flow of emotions and moods.

In the title track, you mention Narcissus, whose mythological figure inspired the artwork too.

For me, visuals and music are complementary: They make your message stronger. That is why I wanted to refer to Narcissus on the cover, but I decided to represent him as a corrupt, unappealing character. Quite the opposite of the classical myth, in which he is so attracted by his own reflection that he drowns in the water.

So the moral is to be careful not to like yourself too much, isn’t it?

Not exactly. I do not hide the fact that I like myself. I feel quite self-confident. But in the last couple of years there was a period in which I felt disconnected from the nice words that people said to me, and from my own emotions.

The Italian architect Stefano Boeri praised the fact that so many artists of the trap scene do not forget their roots even after reaching success. After reaching the Olympus, they do not forget the ghetto, we could say. What do you think about that?

I perfectly understand what Boeri says, with those points of departure and arrival. In my case, with Ghettolimpo, I look for a meeting point. I try to unify two worlds that seem distant at first glance and make them complementary. The “ghetto” is not only the Milanese suburbs; with that word, I refer to the world, to life, to all the experiences I had, while the Olympus reflects the mythological perspective of this everyday life of mine. I also wanted to talk about my past: the opening track "Dei" ["Gods"] is inspired by my memories of reading books about Greek myths when I was a child. So the album starts with this old passion of mine and then I broaden the horizons.

There is a certain sophistication in the sounds of "Baci Dalla Tunisia" [“Kisses From Tunisia”], a display of love for inspirations coming from north-eastern Africa. I see that as a clear sign of your artistic maturity.

That was the first song I wrote for the album. I had a session with a French 17-year-old called Josh Rosinet. At first it was only piano and voice. Then I rearranged it because I wanted to deliver a certain Eastern vibe. The outro with strings was added at the end by producer Dario Faini [also known as Dardust]. So it is the first song I conceived and the last one to be refined. On tour, we will bring these new sounds too, as they are essential to the performance onstage.

"T’amo" [“I Love You”] features a traditional Sardinian choir that feels like incense in a church. And the outro totally sounds like a gospel.

Yes, the match between those white voices with the dreamy atmosphere of the outro makes you imagine a mass. But in this track, there is no reference to prayers or religion. Let me say that Ghettolimpo does not have a religion. In the title track, I say: “If you pray alone/ Outside a church…,” and that refers to a free kind of prayer. If people let themselves be carried by their own imagination, that is perfect! It is my intention: Everyone should be free to think with their own thoughts.

How is your creative relationship with Riccardo Tisci of Burberry? By the way, the motherly figure played an important role in the lives of both of you.

Yes -- like family in general, I would say. That is a source of inspiration for both of us. Riccardo never repeats himself and always surprises me even though I know him very well. Like when he proposed me that black dress when I sang at the Sanremo Festival in 2020 [pictured in the photo above]! Something between gothic and college aesthetics.

Are you feeling ready for the U.S.?

You know, I have been to the States only once. I performed before Ciara, who is amazing. As I watched her, I wondered: “Why does she look so weary?,” and then I discovered that she was pregnant. You see what professionalism is? And despite that, her performance was awesome. You only must learn from things like these. And you know what?

Tell me, I am curious.

New York looked small to me! Maybe because I watched too many movies and series that are set in the city. [Laughs] But yes, I want to go the States!

And who would you like to collaborate with?

Jazmine Sullivan. I have been following her for 10 years.

--Written by Tommaso Toma; translated by Federico Durante