‘The Fall of Hobo Johnson’ signals anything but

Written By Matthew Bright, For The Globe

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While there may be an urge to write Hobo Johnson off as an example of everything that’s wrong with hip-hop, it’s hard to deny that he’s created a sound that sets him apart from peers.

To the uninitiated, Hobo Johnson, real name Frank Lopes Jr., found himself at the center of viral fame last year after entering the Tiny Desk Contest hosted by NPR with a performance of a song titled “Peach Scone.” In less than a week, the video racked up millions of views and drew a line between critics and fans, with many calling him on his feigned approach to rap.

“My name is Hobo Johnson, I’m a rapper/ I’m actually not a rapper, I like to say musician,” he proclaims, while relying on the fact that his band, “The Lovemakers,” use live instruments to set himself apart from the moniker.

“The Fall of Hobo Johnson” is the follow-up to 2017’s appropriately titled album, “The Rise of Hobo Johnson,” and feels like the next logical step for the quirky artist. The record delivers exactly what fans have come to love about the group, but it doesn’t seem destined to sway detractors.

The record kicks off with the frantic tune “Typical Story,” and doesn’t waste a moment before settling into his unique style of vocals. The dirty guitar riffs provide the thrust of a slightly anthemic chorus before dropping out completely to make room for a few calmly spoken verses. Don’t let that fool you though; this song ends with as much anxiety as it began with.

“Mover Awayer” draws comparisons to his viral success, with plenty of samples and a slow building melody. The production on the song shows maturity, with disconnected piano and reverberant guitars highlighted by lazy drums. The song’s lyrics play sincere with Johnson recalling, “She makes my Mondays feel like Fridays/ She makes my Ruby Tuesdays taste like Benihanas/ And all I’ve really wanted/ For us to get along.”

“Uglykid” shines a light on the self-deprecating tendencies of Johnson. The song starts with the calming, dreamlike female vocals of Elohim and a drippy trumpet while maintaining a groove that will have you slowly bobbing your head along. In addition, the poetic lyrics effortlessly endear you to the young artist.

Johnson has always taken a very personal approach to his writing, but on the track “You-The Cockroach” he takes a gamble by dabbling in the current political climate. It’s a clunky mix of him lamenting a fear of death, the banality of the human condition and insulting the president, which are ideas that may work on their own, but come across as someone attempting to be an intellectual in the way they’re presented here.

The straightforward track, “Subaru Crosstrek XV”, has Johnson reflecting on his rise to fame and how far he has left to go. “I just bought a Subaru Crosstrek/ I would have bought a Lambo, but I’m not quite there, yet.” This record beautifully highlights Johnson’s wide range of influences.

“Moonlight” features haunting string instruments and a spunky saxophone before breaking down into controlled mayhem. If the song shows the group settling into their trademark sound, then “February 15th” strips that sound down to its foundation. It’s a slow guitar jam that plays like it’s being performed in a dark, smoky bar. This song is exactly what the album needed. A simple version of all the juicy elements that this record is built upon – a guy screaming about his feelings.

“Happiness” sounds like a heartfelt song, but there is a biting sense of sarcasm underlying the elegant piano notes and whisper-adjacent vocals. The song tackles the regret and anger of a failed relationship and trades his humor for an opportunity to let his guard down. It’s one of the strongest tracks that the album has to offer.

“Ode To Justin Bieber” sees the artist almost manically describing the downside of fame and notoriety before dropping into an ethereal synth-backed breakdown. This layered song has the feel of an early Eminem tune before completely tossing the listener a curveball and ending with a delicate piano melody and a taste of Johnson’s true singing voice, which is pleasant and somewhat unexpected.

The record winds down with “I want a Dog,” which reinforces the theme of the previous track. We hear Johnson compare little things, like getting a puppy, to the more personal goal of starting a family. At first, the song seems more suited for the middle of the record, but it builds to a vibrant finale worthy of closing out this unique album.

The “Fall of Hobo Johnson” makes the artist feel more relatable than his previous efforts have. His left-of-center style and vocals create the image of a young man attempting to find his place in life. You can sense that he enjoys the chaos and is finally developing the skills to bring his listeners along for the journey.

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