Album Review: Hobo Johnson - 'The Rise Of Hobo Johnson'

19 March 2018 | 6:33 am | Alex Sievers
Originally Appeared In

ASMR for dudes that dread the friendzone.

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I love Hotel Books and I really enjoy Listener (who put out a fucking great record earlier this year by the way), but man, I do not love or like Hobo Johnson in the slightest. Despite the very obvious and close comparisons drawn between those two artists and this Sacramento dude.

Real name Frank Lopes, Hobo plays what he describes as a kind of “Sad Boi Hip Hop”, which is an accurate descriptor. From his slam-poet-rapped vocals, emo influences, hip-hop production, minimal and ambient instrumentation, overly dramatic themes, and bluntly honest lyrics. You'll see this on his most recently released track, the live angsty fuck-boy anthem of ‘Peach Scone' featuring his backing band, The LoveMakers – that NPR Tiny Desk contest viral video you've probably seen clogging up your Facebook - which has been grabbing people’s attention and dividing many opinions. After "experiencing" that particular track when it first dropped, I now wanted to go back to where it all presumedly started for Hobo/Frank, with his 2017 debut album, ‘The Rise Of Hobo Johnson’. As you can guess by now, I really ain't picking up what he's putting down.

On this nine-track release, Hobo sounds like what a slightly older but somehow weirder Morty from Rick & Morty would sound like if he was more emotional and tried being a rapper; right down to the inflections and how it feels like he's just making it all up as he goes along. (See: most songs, but namely ‘Father’). Also, I really don’t think that is a hyperbolic comparison to make, given Lopes’ timbre and his vocal register.

In more serious matters, like all spoken-word and slam-poetry artists, it's all about the vocals and their delivery. In this case, when he's not doing the odd scream or two, Lopes' vocal style is to usually start off with some drily rapped, free-flowing emotional vibes that SUDDENLY GET REALLY LOUD FOR A LITTLE BIT before it all tones back down. Which is fine, if nothing new for this kind of music. (*cough* Cam Smith anyone? *cough*). While his flow is solid, Lopes does add in these random little tangents - whether relating to the song or not depends on the actual piece. Like how he tries to be educational and mention America's police brutality issues and widely fucked-up history on 'Demarcus Cousins & Ashley' right in the middle of talking about missing the titular "Ashley". It's out of nowhere and bizarre, but not in a good way. Such sections will be either be incredibly annoying and hinder your investment in this record or you may even find these parts rather endearing. I, for one, do not.

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As for his lyrics, most are about Lopes being: alone, wanting to be loved, sex, girls, his parents relationship and divorce, getting coffee, being friend-zoned, (while he never specifically calls it that, that’s what he’s talking about), to these little random lines, life experiences and stream-of-consciousness thoughts crammed in. At the album's rarely best, it’s decent, honest and dare I say it, even compelling stuff from a guy who is putting himself out there and speaking his mind. Yet at the album's more frequent nadir, it’s just all kinds of cringey, whiny white boy ambient-rap/hip-hop for Front Bottoms fans that spends far too much fucking time moaning about not winning over a girl but never once considering that the common denominator might be him.

Now, based on this release, I wouldn't go so far as to say that Hobo Johnson is one of those incel wankers that Sorrow TV makes YouTube videos about – he seems a little too chill to indulge in that kind of vile dickishness, truth be told. However, Lopes does come off as a slightly over-the-top and creepy “nice guy”, and it’s all quite gross to listen to honestly. Not only that, but it all undercuts the more personal moments of the record, which is a real shame too.

Of course, this record isn't just Lopes vocals and lyrics, so let's talk about these nine songs. I love the groovy bass lines and lo-fi drums heard on opener 'Sex In The City' (which was a great show, don’t deny it), as well as those crisp but distant saxophone melodies screaming away in the background. But that lovely buzz is killed off with Lopes talking about fixing his back-acne, girls who are a 10 dating guys who are an 8, how being in a loving relationship looks so perfect from his small, dark, and lonely corner, to even slipping in a sly "your mum" joke at one point. It's all very stream-of-consciousness and it fades out with little rhyme or reason, which you'll either love or hate. Much like the rest of his work.

The detuned keys that kick off ‘Demarcus Cousins & Ashley’ are creepy but also very cool and they support the lyrical metaphors of being a bad person, getting locked up in jail, but finding comfort in letters sent in from the outside by a lover well enough. Most of the track is written about this unknown "Ashley" as Lopes compares his love (or past love) for this woman to a laundry list of other contradicting topics: "I love you like my dad loved my mum before they realised they don't love each other anymore". All with a few drum loops and some added FX sounds inserted underneath. It's a pretty schizophrenic track all up in terms of its instrumentals and the samples used, with it coming off scatterbrain, to a point of detriment.

Next up, the short and tonally cheery ‘Mario & Link’ is about the perseverance of two classic Nintendo characters fighting to save their respective princesses and on getting the girl, complete with video games samples taken from old Mario titles. And it's pretty off-putting lyrically when you think about it; the implication being that Link/Mario/Lopes are deserving of these women’s lust and love merely due to their efforts and troubles. Which I'll address with three simple words: fuck that noise. Women do not owe you shit. Straight up, this song can get in the fucking bin, let's move on.

The hypnotic beats, electronic elements and the sexual/marriage-theme of 'Romeo & Juliet' sounds like what Macklemore would be if he grew up on angsty emo-rock instead of Biggie or Tupac in terms of vocals, tone, and instrumentals. (So just Lil Dicky then, I guess?) It's hit and miss overall, sadly hitting that glaring mid-point between the good and the bad of 'The Rise Of Hobo Johnson'. Things do get pretty emotional on ‘Father’ as Hobo talks about how his dad raised him and how his old man taught him about life and love, which is kinda sweet. But interjected between these engaging, personal tidbits are – no joke – Frank yelling about how he’s “the new Will Smith mixed with Michael Cera”, with him interchanging this by yelling out “Kevin Spacey” (not someone you want to be compared with currently), all with rap vocal gunshots and yelling going off in the background towards the end too. This all pulls you right out of the song and is utterly laughable, and I’m definitely not laughing along with Lopes.

Thankfully, the back end of this release is actually what saves 'The Rise Of Hobo Johnson' from being truly abysmal. For instance, the soft and twinkly keys (something this record loves to use), handclaps and subtle trap hi-hats heard in 'Creve Coeur 1' are really nice touches and this track sees Hobo at what is arguably his best. It skirts that "nice guy" line but feels far more caring and less whiny than most other songs here, while being far more contemplative in tone, suitably low-key in dynamics, and telling a decent story of love gone awry to boot. It's him actually being nice and loving lyrically and I can back that.

Another good late-game cut, '3%', is also one of the album's better moments. The eerie backing ambiance of the track is well-implemented as is the booming, clicky kick drum that anchors down whole the piece. While it does shift into a recalled argument between Lopes and a girl regarding him following music, being semi-broke but at least loving his life, whereas she's making more money but hating her job and life, it all works. Plus, that particular part of the song sums up the intent and also possibly the reality that Lopes is in and maybe even reveals what guides his music beneath it all. I mean, yes, I really don't like this record all that much but I can definitely appreciate the hustle there at least. Elsewhere, 'Jesus Christ' sounds like an immensely stripped back Twenty One Pilots tune; like a skeleton demo of that band with piano and Tyler Joseph's vocals left in, with a little modulation added to the vocals. Underneath the framing device of a confessional booth and Hobo lyrically discussing the complexity of love and faith, it's a pretty haunting piece and another decent little cut for 'The Rise Of Hobo Johnson'.

Then comes 'The Ending', which is exactly that, the album's end. It's a smooth song, yes, but it's cheesy early 2000's pop vibes are inescapable with its basic beats and cliche wind chimes that make me feel all kinds of ill. While it does lyrically reference 'Sex In The City' (Marvin Gaye getting another mention here), Frank ends this final song by literally thanking the listener for checking out his album; that he's now done with the music business; what music all means to him; and even has him lay down his noble goals for what and where he'd like to take Hobo Johnson. And then it ends. That's it, folks. Hobo said his peace and left the building, presumedly to go and write 'Peach Scone' (his "best" work so far, with caveats) and to probably be that weird dude who creeps on girls at shows.

Judging from the way in which he markets himself and his general demeanour in his videos, Frank Lopes seems like a passionate and insanely enthusiastic guy about his art and music. But my unlikely-real-god, despite a couple decent songs, this album is so often full of cringey lyrics and whiny white boy hip-hop/spoken word that betrays it's more personal, intimate qualities. This really is Listener for Mac Demarco fans; a less mature and less interesting Hotel Books; a sonic reflection of dudes who can't ever just be friends with women, so they listen to an unhealthy amount of The World Is A Beautiful Place, obsess over said girl, then insult her when they don't get their way like the petulant children they are inside.

Lopes seems to be only in this for the fulfilment music brings him and the fun ride of this Hobo Johnson journey he’s embarked upon, which is commendable. He's also genuinely trying to be original, and there is something here with his music (not past the blueprint stage, I'd argue), and it's quite clear he's presenting his full self by honestly covering a great many topics, which I do respect. But the flipside to that is that I myself then should be fully honest about his work, and as such, I really don't like this album. Hopefully, for better but possibly for worse, let’s see where Hobo goes from here. Because if there's one thing correct with record's title, it's that right now is the rise of Hobo Johnson.

  1. Sex In The City
  2. Demarcus Cousins & Ashley
  3. Mario & Link
  4. Father
  5. Romeo & Juliet
  6. Creve Coeur 1
  7. 3%
  8. Jesus Christ
  9. The Ending