Of all the artists and activists featured at this year’s Emerge Impact + Music festival, Hobo Johnson and the Lovemakers might be the most polarizing.
Fronted by Frank Lopes Jr., aka Hobo Johnson, the spoken-wordy emo-rap sextet out of Sacramento caused a bit of commotion on social media following an NPR Tiny Desk performance. For many, it was their first exposure to Lopes’ very distinct style. Most weren’t sure what to make of it.
A particular befuddling moment came during “Creve Coeur 1,” a song about a girl who struggles with relationships because of the drama and dysfunction she witnessed in her own home. Lopes’ story builds on top of a quiet piano melody. He opens with spoken, poetic prose: "Hi," says the girl with the right eyes / That pairs pretty well when she hits you with the soft smile. It’s like eavesdropping on a conversation or peeking into a diary. Slowly the beat, and Lopes’ vocals build, until he’s full-on shouting on the second verse, sounding like an angry Lin-Manuel Miranda. Some found it comical; it was.
One fan tweeted a clip of the performance with the message, “hobo Johnson isn’t bad y’all just aren’t sad enough.” Comedian Zack Fox retweeted the clip with the note: “man what the f*** is this.” It sparked a 400 comment debate. The roasts kept coming. “hobo Johnson isn't bad y'all just aren't quirky 12 year olds in an Apple commercial,” “it's a new genre called ADHD,” “he’s macklemore’s long lost brother mackleless.”
Those burns are a stark contrast to the comments left on Hobo Johnson’s Youtube page, where fans have left an outpour of support for Lopes’ unique brand. One fan wrote, “Hobo Johnson you have the greatest and most passionate music I've ever heard;” another, “The way you say each word in such a genuine and powerful way is breathtaking.” Even Lopes himself isn’t sure what to make of the love/hate relationship people have with his music, tweeting a screenshot of Fox’s tweet next to a screenshot of a Snoop Dogg Instagram post with a collection of records, where a vinyl copy of The Rise of Hobo Johnson sits next to rap classics like Wu-Tang Clan’s Enter the Wu-Tang and Notorious B.I.G.’s Ready to Die.
What is it that compels a certified rap icon to praise Hobo Johnson and random nobodies to tear him down? In this era of cancel culture, there isn’t anything on his record that should elicit such vitriol.
It’s easy to hate something new that detours from the norm. Lopes’ music seems so drastically different from what’s deemed cool that it comes across as abrasive. And maybe it’s because it’s hard to box, that it’s so easy for some to pick apart. It isn’t rap in the braggy, 808-drum heavy sense. It isn’t rock. It isn’t folk. It’s a hodgepodge of all of the above that lands somewhere between Twenty One Pilots’ non-rap and Chance the Rapper at his most poetic. And if you listen with an open mind, you might just hear something you like.
Many of Lopes’ songs are about relationships, his heartbreak so relatable that it stings to listen. I fall to ground, collect myself and get ready to take over your heart / Or at least your spare time, he says on “Peach Scone,” pining for a love he’ll never have. On “Feb. 15th (Alone Forever),” he holds a mirror to himself, talk-singing: My new friends are starting to know / Why my old ones don't talk to me anymore / My ex knows why my last one's my last one / Hey, guess why / It's 'cause my f****n' actions. It’s a gut-punch right in the feels. It’s why many of his videos break more than one million views, why he generates headlines like “Hobo Johnson Is About to Be Huge,” and why people leave comments like, “literally just listened to this song like 30 times straight.”
Hear Johnson out, and you might get addicted, too.