Royce da 5’9″ was once known as “Eminem’s sidekick,” the only guy who could keep up crazy punchline-for-punchline with peak Slim Shady. He also worked with Slaughterhouse, the “rap supergroup” that never really took off. It was more like four lead guitarists taking turns soloing, just a blizzard of rappity-rapping for no other purpose. He’s also had some wrong turns in the career, whether record label problems or ill fated crossover attempts. Translation of all this – Royce is a talented rapper with a career of battles, freestyles, collabs, mixtapes, and albums. But is he Top 50?

Yes, undeniably. I’m basing this Top 50 list on music that has been a part of my life. I got into Royce after drunk buying the Build & Destroy compilation. That’s what we (I?) did back then – have a couple drinks at the bar before going record shopping. That’s how I ended up with stuff like solo Ronnie James Dio and U-God albums. (There was one time I bought a late-era Black Sabbath CD only to find a live Steve Martin comedy album inside and it was a welcome drunken surprise!) And that’s how I picked up this Royce album, which came out while he was in label limbo. It’s a mix of stray tracks, including a Kanye beat (“Heartbeat“) and a diss to Eminem’s D12 (“Malcolm X“). The one I kept on repeat was “I Won’t Be,” with a beat by Alchemist:

But here’s the problem with Royce 5’9″ – sometimes he just tries too damn hard, whether it’s with a complicated punchline or an album project. I’m reminded of GZA’s advice to rappers from Wu-Tang Forever: “Make it brief son, half short and twice strong.” And yet that’s not entirely applicable to Royce, as his 2007 The Bar Exam mixtape was proof that all he needs is a good beat to flow endlessly. The Bar Exam remains a pinnacle and feels like Royce’s true emergence as his own artist. The mixtape was released at the dawn of the download era, when consumption of music was changing. It was easier to dismiss bad stuff or not fully appreciate the good stuff. Not The Bar Exam – Royce over DJ Premier beats is extra special.

I don’t even care much anymore for tricky rhymes and punchlines – I listen for perspective, for insight. One of Royce’s common devices is to break the fourth wall, to address the unaddressable. He might engage in the usual rap histrionics, but he’s not gonna lie to you. That mix of bravado and honesty reminds me of Prodigy, who also matured and progressed from early success. Royce invests so much of personality in his lyrics that his discography tells his story – from early success to label troubles and beefs with Eminem’s crew to relationships and family to cultural criticism to sobriety and onward.

The mixtapes tell this story with more detail, from The Bar Exam series and last year’s Trust The Shooter. His albums are spottier and can be exhaustive listens due to the disorganization. This is a common trap for rappers who need big guest appearance and pop singles at the expense of a cohesive album. 2014’s PRhyme with DJ Premier is the exception and the evidence that this is not the fault of Royce’s lyricism, which is always on point. Regardless, at his best Royce elevates the craft.