Hobo Johnson’s new kind of swagger
How Frank Lopes went from a kid living in his car to one of Sacramento’s most promising young rappers
Frank Lopes happily talks about his stretch of homelessness, one of the darkest times of his life. It’s right in his debut album, Hobo Johnson’s 1994 Toyota Corolla.
That period started last February when his dad kicked him out of the house, forcing him to live in his car for nearly a month. But now, the 21-year-old rapper has an infectiously positive energy about it. He wears an ear-to-ear smile when he talks about other dark details from his life, too, like going to juvenile hall at 17—he laughs at how inedible the food was, and how the guards called it “noodle surprise” just to make the intmates’ lives more miserable.
The hours in his Corolla spawned the name Hobo Johnson. More importantly, the experience jolted his artistic style. Since about 15, he’d been churning out rap tunes with empty boasts, cliché metaphors and hand-me-down hip-hop swagger. With everything stripped away, he dropped the braggadocio and started spitting verses that reflected his true self: self-depreciating, contradictory and weird.
“I was like, ’Maybe I should just not be fake,’” Lopes says. “I’m so grateful it happened. I wouldn’t be the same person. I wouldn’t be making the same music.”
This new, bullshit-free lifestyle influenced an uncomfortably honest approach to rap. (“I hate to think if I didn’t hate math, I’d be in dorms or class, not living in my car.”) Around the same time, Lopes developed an interest in folk-punk bands AJJ (formerly known as Andrew Jackson Jihad) and Front Bottoms, whose members would scream out all their ugly secrets with glee.
“It’s all from the heart,” Lopes says. “They were saying all these things I’d never heard before and being honest. I was fucking amazed by it.”
Lopes worked on his tunes all through 2015, releasing 1994 Toyota Corolla that October. His next album, The Rise of Hobo Johnson, came out in May. The record takes a new low-key, moody direction, comprised primarily of haunting piano loops. His verses are more creative and personal, and the lack of a solid beat gives him greater flexibility to stumble around with his jumbled lyrics.
“I feel like the piano captures a mood so well,” Lopes says. “Me rapping on beats doesn’t work.”
He plays piano with his band, Hobo Johnson and the LoveMakers, which debuted in September—just a few months after he first began performing live. And the group isn’t afraid to get silly on stage. Its first show included a hilarious interlude, “Trap Macaroni,” where the members danced to a trap beat with a giant pot of macaroni. Lopes held out a big ladle of pasta for the audience to try.
Seriousness has its place, too. One of his standout songs, “Father,” digs deep into his relationship with his parents. He opens with his dad squashing his dream of sports stardom (“Son, you’ll never dunk, it’s just family tradition.”) and then takes shots at his stepmom, referring to her as a “shape-shifting monster who can sometimes take the form of a really, really nice woman.” Still, “Father” feels less like a critique of his parents and more like a way to contextualize his own flaws.
He and his dad have a better relationship now. If anything, Lopes sees how the younger him needed a kick in the butt.
“I was very troubled. I would just be mean for no reason. I didn’t know what I wanted to do,” Lopes says. “I try to not be a dick. That’s one of my main things. And I say that a lot in my music.”