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Rat Boy - Internationally Unknown Music Album Reviews

The fashionable UK punk-rap frontman has been made into an icon, but his second album is too often a pale and rote imitation of rebellion.

Long before Jordan Cardy became known as the punk-rap miscreant Rat Boy, the other kids on the playground likened the Essex native’s physical appearance to that of a rodent. His severe dyslexia, coupled with his proclivities for skateboarding and art over academia, resulted in chronic absences from school. He was fired from his job working the dreaded night shift at the Wetherspoons, a British pub chain catering mostly to chavs and suits; McDonald’s flat-out turned him down. Through it all, Cardy kept as relentless as his namesake critter, uploading his punk-flavored hip-hop tracks to Soundcloud en masse, and fearlessly pitching anyone and everyone on the platform in hopes that someone was listening.

As it turns out, people were listening: namely bassist Drew McConnell of the post-punk band Babyshambles. Intrigued, he took a then-17-year-old Cardy under his wing and introduced him to various music-industry types in the UK, including the folks at Parlophone Records, who added Rat Boy to their roster in 2015. Less than five years later, Rat Boy has grown his scumbaggery into not only a full-fledged project (sampled by Kendrick Lamar, no less) and an international streetwear line (called Scum, obviously) but a walking flashpoint for UK youth culture as a whole. This success stems mostly from Cardy’s timely, intersectional sound—a self-made mélange of hardcore punk, ’90s hip-hop, second-wave ska, and big-beat funk à la Fatboy Slim, set to familiar accounts of wasted youth and generational ennui—but also from how he’s a Supreme-sporting skate-rat who’s really fucking cool. (“[His style], that’s what got me into him,” said Liam Gallagher’s 16-year-old son Gene.”)

Rat Boy’s second full-length album, Internationally Unknown, doesn’t resemble an album so much as an AirPods-friendly, watered-down distillation of each and every soundtrack to “Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater.” The riffs skew crunchy and distorted, the drums airtight and boom-bap inspired, the arrangements snotty and brash, and the lyrics perfunctorily rebellious, filled with one-dimensional portraits of dithering cops, dead-end jobs, and lazy afternoons at the skatepark. The crisp, dubby production, courtesy of Rancid’s Tim Armstrong, deepens the record’s nostalgic focus even further. Their ska-lite sheen and skater-kid swagger across many songs including “No Peace No Justice”—featuring the seasoned punk on guest vocals—could easily pass for Transplants, Armstrong’s rap-leaning side project from the early aughts.

The strongest moments on Internationally Unknown come when Cardy abandons those rote Dogtown set pieces for something a little closer to home. “Don’t Hesitate,” far and away the album’s highlight, puts an endearingly-goofy spin on Cornershop’s beat-heavy Britpop. “Young gun hustler made his moves/Glock against the clock, have you heard the news?” Cardy chirps, exaggeratedly mean-mugging from atop the rubbery sub-bass, wholly well-aware that he can’t play the tough guy to save his life, but giving zero fucks nonetheless. The standout “So What,” a cynical, call-and-response laundry-list of all the shit that can go wrong in a young person’s life, ranging from losing their job to being shaken down by the cops, has similar comedic merit but applies those jokes to more universal ends.

“When I was a kid, I did feel like there were not, like, people that were into the same stuff,” Cardy said of his obsession with ’90s culture in a recent New York Times profile. This boilerplate sentiment is arguably why young people find Rat Boy so appealing to begin with: Cardy holds a familiar mirror to the clusterfuck of growing up. He hopes it'll make the existential boogiemen a little more cartoonish, a little more conquerable. A little bit of retrospective absurdity goes a long way—if only the rest of Internationally Unknown wasn’t so pale and redundant.

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