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Rap duo Chelmico originally hoped to explore childhood trauma through its music in 2020.

“When we started planning out our album, we wanted to go in a darker direction,” member Mamiko Suzuki tells The Japan Times. “Then COVID-19 happened, and we felt too depressed to go that way.”

Instead, 24-year-old Suzuki and 27-year-old Rachel Watashiga, the other half of the hip-pop project, tried to create optimistic music in a year that has brought an onslaught of bad news. The resulting album, “Maze,” features tracks the duo say were made with live shows and clubs in mind — even if the odds of the songs being performed in those spaces anytime soon remain slim.

“I had a solo show before the pandemic, in like a hotel lobby,” Suzuki says about her last fun, pre-pandemic memory, and speaking via Skype from the Warner Music Japan offices. “Rachel was there watching, and it was so fun — we danced, drank in the street. … I want to go back to those times.”

Their upbeat attitude now has the chance to reach more people than ever before. “Maze” — the Japanese word for mix, not a labyrinthian structure — arrives following a 12-month stretch of Chelmico (typically written in lowercase) being swept into the mainstream. After picking up steam with melancholy rap tracks such as “Balloon,” the duo broke through in January with “Easy Breezy,” a topsy-turvy number anchored by a loopy slide melody serving as the opening theme for the popular anime “Keep Your Hands Off Eizouken!” directed by Masaaki Yuasa. The song coupled with the show’s intro animation morphed into a dance meme extending far beyond Japan, while also helping Suzuki and Watashiga achieve their childhood dreams of appearing on the weekly TV show “Music Station” earlier this year.

“It was weird, because it was the first time the show happened without an audience,” Watashiga says, referring to the show’s pandemic-era prevention measures. “All the artists were trying to pump one another up, and they kind of became the crowd.”

Regardless of the studio audience situation, Chelmico’s commitment to merging pop and rap has been paying off. J-pop has been less rigid when it comes to genre in the past few years, and Chelmico is a prime example of this loosening up. “Maze” sees Suzuki and Watashiga rhyming over tracks that draw inspiration from jazz and dance music. They are a social media-age update on hybrid acts linking those styles in Japan such as Halcali, Charisma.com and Rip Slyme.

A shared fondness for the latter rap-pop group helped Suzuki and Watashiga bond when they first met at a McDonald’s near Nishi-Nippori Station in the early 2010s. Watashiga was an aspiring model who sometimes popped up in music videos such as Seiko Oomori’s “Imitation Girl,” while Suzuki was in high school preparing for university entrance exams. In 2014, an acquaintance who organized concerts had to fill an extra 10-minute slot, which he offered to Watashiga. She jumped at the opportunity, recruiting Suzuki to form a ramshackle rap unit sporting a portmanteau of their names as a moniker.

A year after that 10-minute gig, they had the chance to perform again (this time with an additional five minutes). Watashiga was juggling part-time jobs while Suzuki opted to take a gap year following a rough first go with exams so they could devote more focus on Chelmico. They reached out to a producer friend and wrote a new song, “Labyrinth ’97,” featuring lyrics about everyday life. They committed to the project from there, exploring nocturnal slow burns and pogoing summertime pop.

When asked what separates working with Chelmico from other artists, songwriter and producer Ryo Takahashi, who has frequently collaborated with the duo since 2016, says it’s really the freedom that working with them allows.

“Depending on their mood at the time, I can run in all kinds of directions and try out different genres,” he says.

Watashiga points out that this ability to jump across styles has helped immensely in landing gigs in a variety of music scenes.

“We were watching a YouTube video of the top 30 Japanese rappers, and we weren’t featured in it, despite having more views than anyone actually shown,” Watashiga says. “But that made us happy. We don’t want to be just known as Japanese rappers.”

Regardless of that particular YouTube clip, Chelmico signed with Warner Music Japan and have been putting out music via the major since 2018. Similar to Rip Slyme, m-flo (who they collaborated with this summer on the song “Run Aways”) and Halcali before them, Chelmico uses hip-hop as a foundation, but brings in other elements to create a unique flavor. The difference is that Suzuki and Watashiga are doing so at a time when rap has become the lingua franca of global pop.

“We made the majority of the songs in March and April,” Watashiga says. “We did everything remotely from our homes. After the state of emergency ended, we wrapped it up.”“Maze” offered the duo a chance to flex their eclectic nature while offering up one of the more upbeat albums to emerge during the pandemic.

Despite being an adjustment from their usual recording style, the pair found it far better than going into a studio. “It was so smooth,” Suzuki says.

What didn’t change was the variety of producers helping them construct their music. They leaned on longtime collaborators such as Esme Mori (on the rippling ode to the nights out and dank clubs pre-COVID track “Disco (Bad Dance Doesn’t Matter”) and duo Mikeneko Homeless (the sparse “Milk”), while also pushing themselves with newer names.

“The toughest song to record was ‘Gohandayo,’ which was made by Hakushi Hasegawa,” Watashiga says, referring to the young composer who creates intricate electronic tracks that are borderline chaotic. “It was the reverse of how we make songs — usually we write the lyrics first, but for this one we had to find the words to fit his goal. He didn’t care about the meaning at all, just how they sounded. That was new.”

Another new experience was being commissioned to create a song for an anime.

“It was a dream to work with Masaaki Yuasa. He made some of our favorite anime, so we wanted to make something that surprised him,” Watashiga says.

The only order Chelmico got about the song was keep it fast. Takahashi, handling the music, turned to metal for inspiration.

“I wanted to make the rhythm strong from the first beat, and the first example to come to mind was Slipknot’s intro rhythms,” he says. “From there, slide guitar felt like an appropriate addition, while Suzuki and Watashiga wrote lyrics to keep up with the pace while being mindful of the show’s international viewers (hence the “easy breezy” hook).

It’s a gleeful song, and a good gateway into “Maze,” an album full of nostalgia for life pre-coronavirus (there’s a song here about rushing through an airport to catch your flight … and even that feels a bit melancholy now), but ultimately choosing to celebrate a sense of optimism that the situation will eventually get better. Maybe this positivity comes from the duo’s friendship, which has taken them from 10-minute rap sets to nationally televised music shows.

“Our bond has only gotten stronger in the past few years,” Suzuki says. Whatever direction they go in next, they’ll always have that.

Chelmico’s third album, “Maze,” is available now. For more information, visit chelmico.com.

In line with COVID-19 guidelines, the government is strongly requesting that residents and visitors exercise caution if they choose to visit bars, restaurants, music venues and other public spaces.

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