Instance – The Superegular (Album Review)

Starting out as a drum ‘n’ bass emcee inspired by the likes of Roni Size and Skibadee, Instance’s style matured into hip-hop after he moved from Burnley to Leeds. Despite now being fully integrated in the West Yorkshire hip-hop scene, he still distinguishes himself musically from his peers by embracing a genuine spirit of eclecticism. Renowned as a stellar wordsmith, Instance bolsters his unique style by privileging lyricism over image – his deep, gravelly drawl playing off against heavily-suffused poetics, wherein he weaves dense and powerful renderings of life in the inner-city.

His new CD titled ‘The Superegular’ conveys the same dark subject matter and delivers a similarly high level of quality as his debut album ‘Demographic’. From the glossy, dark purple neons on the cover to its rich sonic compositions, the new album transcends the stale of trappings of roughly-hewn, sample-heavy underground hip-hop, and remains conceptually robust by rarely deviating from its intentionally sombre modes. The cohesive 15-track LP showcases a surprisingly broad spectrum of beatmaking talent, too: from heavyweights Sonar Cousin and Wizard, to the relatively lesser-known Makes Van out of Russia, the album straddles the line between high-budget and analogue, with its intricately crafted compositional soundscape occasionally roughened by murky, home studio qualities. Frequently bridging the gap between traditional and left-field hip-hop styles, it provides both a fascinating and challenging listen.

Despite thrusting you into full-on abstraction in the opening track ‘Haiku’, Instance does ensconce the listener in a little more with the lighter electronic swirls of ‘Swerve That’. Featuring the aurally hypnotic vocals of Gemma Tilley, the song focuses on the theme of place, namely the inseparability of a person and their surroundings. Heavily evocative of dark nights in the big city, Instance’s lyrics maintain an emotional effect by flitting from gritty street prose and then lurching into full-blown expressive poetry; a fine example of this being ‘Lucid Dreams’ with its plethora of drug-induced introspection: Voodoo heresy blasphemy with the bibles / Lunar eclipses gravitate with the tides.

For all his talent for self-expression however, he doesn’t allow his cleverness wit words to get in the way of saying something memorable. Indeed, while it can be easy to lose yourself in his sea of lyricism, a few tracks on the album do convey slightly starker, stripped-down messages to the listener. ‘Passenger’ for example, with its simpler minor keys traverses the emotional terrain of a creative type lost in the conformist rhythm of the city: I step off the train into thick brown haze / A thousand suits walk towards as I move against the grain / Dusty streets in my effervescent dreams. The track’s lo-fi aesthetic also adds a whole heap of mystery to his persona, playing off light and dark imagery, dissonance and harmony.

Though the album is an intensely personal affair, Instance does, albeit sparingly include guest vocalists. In ‘Keys Open Doors’ he enlists the experienced skill set of fellow West Yorkshireman and EOW World Champion Jack Flash. A track more orthodox in sound with its repetitious drum patterns laced with rich polyphonic textures, the two lyricists combine to potent effect: Get me out to Panama / Toking on Havanas bumping salsa in a crowded bar. Sonnyjim of Eatgood Records also brings his reputation to the album, though does little to compliment Instance’s style . His choppy, staccato delivery, while mood-leavnening, is incongruous to the smoky drawls of Instance’s preceding verse in ‘The Superegular’, which again, is loaded with delightful self-expression: My mind cascades via chemical elements / Of these blunt perspectives of desolate tenements. 

In contrast to the meditative moments are more narrative-based songs like ‘Ghost’, in which he makes frank references to his drug-taking and codependence, fixing the spotlight on deeply personal themes that cut far deeper than the sort of phony rap posturing so often the scourge of hip-hop albums. Not content with riding out the luscious soundscapes, he also adds interesting vocal elements to his songs, such as the call-and-response chorus in ‘Black Suit’: Drunken fights – in a black suit / At their wake – in a black suit / Roll the dice – in a black suit. Added to this, he ably harmonises his vocals to enhance the swooning melodies of ‘Favourite Mistake’, a rework of Rod Stewart’s bluesy rock classic ‘In a Broken Dream’.

Given its expansiveness and sonic density, I initially expected the album to meander and lose focus. Amazingly however, it manages to stay compelling throughout; indeed, the plot and development of Superegular are truly engrossing and near cinematic in scope. Standing out as a weighty release in a world full of ephemeral downloads, dubs and mixtapes, Superegular displays a high level of finesse for an independent hip-hop release. His 18 month hiatus from the scene has proven worthwhile, because he has evidently taken the time to construct possibly one of the most accomplished releases in UK hip-hop this year.

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