La Maquina, Conway The Machine's second album of the year following the Big Ghost LTD-produced If It Bleeds It Can Be Killed, arrives at an interesting juncture in his career. His name has kept bells ringing since last year’s From King To A God, and hype surrounding his Shady Records debut God Don’t Make Mistakes has rendered it one of the year’s most sought-after projects. Yet what might have been a purgatorial holdover in lesser hands has become another stepping stone in Conway’s ongoing ascension. In fact, upon diving into La Maquina, it’s hard not to draw parallels with Jay-Z -- another elite lyricist who sharpened his steel over commercially accessible production. It’s no wonder the pair hold each other in high regard, to the point where a collaboration feels all but inevitable.

That’s not to say Conway has turned his back on the signature Griselda sound. Alchemist and Daringer both contribute minimalistic production to the cause, while J.R Swift strikes an unsettling chord with tone-setting opener “Bruiser Body.” Shades of his acclaimed Reject 2 bleed into the imposing old-school intro, which finds Conway spitting bars with a confident swagger not often seen in his earlier work. An eager willingness to experiment with his flow has quietly developed into one of The Machine’s deadliest tools. A sturdy scheme may very well explode into a dexterous display of double-time, granting ostensibly familiar songs a welcome dose of unpredictability.

Conway wields that element of surprise with a striking degree of self-awareness. Early single “Scatter Brain,” which finds him uniting two generations of Southern greatness in J.I.D. and Ludacris, sparked hype on the intrigue of its lineup alone. Over a playfully eerie beat by Don Cannon, Machine effortlessly saunters overtop the swirling piano loops. “Love when a ni*ga talk stupid, cause that's when shots run him down and he clappin' his pole,” raps Conway, pivoting into a new scheme with a highlight-reel segue. “Trust me, that doesn't bode well for a ni*ga, it's gon' be victims / I'm a street ni*ga, boy, you know the difference.” On “KD,” a reunion with Anza producer Murda Beatz, Machine deftly dominates a disquieting trap banger with the ruthless air of one who thoroughly enjoys a blowout victory. The proof is in the ghoulish chuckle.

While such collaborations serve to expand his crossover appeal, his roots in golden era purism are never to be overshadowed. Griselda labelmates Westside Gunn and Benny The Butcher, each of whom have enjoyed dominant runs as solo artists, reunite on “S.E Gang,” the guitar-driven slow-burner tasked with bringing La Maquina to a close. “Couple ni*gas died from your set, but you ain't never slidin',” he spits, setting up a heavy internal rhyme scheme. “I'm just warmin' up, I'm merely exercisin' and I just decided / I'm the new king of this shit, feel I'm the best since '96 / Used to have no electric, now my shows electrifying.” In certain ways, Conway and Benny feel like a modern-day Raekwon and Ghostface, stylistically complementary while fueled by unspoken competition; seeing as the Griselda boys have made no shortage of hockey references, it feels appropriate to call them the Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin of this rap arena.

What La Maquina lacks in a conceptual throughline, it makes up for in artistic development. Easily the largest showcase of Conway’s DrumWork talent to date, Jae Skeese and 7xvethegenius turn in strong performances, particularly on the label posse cut “Sister Abigail.” A freewheeling display of lyrical prowess set to nostalgic boom-bap production, the hookless track effectively highlights the DrumWork dynamic. Where Conway might feel like a peer to his more established Griselda colleagues, alongside his signees he carries the gravitas of a mentor, an OG willing to let his young talent line up the kill shot. In addition to stepping into a carved-out leadership role, Machine’s clear desire for self-innovation keeps him firmly at the forefront of today’s rap landscape. It’s genuinely exciting to see where he pushes himself next, especially with the release of his biggest album yet within reach.

While it can be argued that La Maquina doesn’t quite reach the heights of its predecessor From King To A God (though it’s likely that fans will be split on that topic), it certainly makes the most compelling case for Conway as the quintessential rap icon of today’s modern era. On “6:30 Tip Off,” he lays things out as follows: “they say West is the brains behind it and Benny is the star, but let's not act like Machine ain't the silliest with the bars.” But in the wake of this latest drop, it’s becoming increasingly clear that Conway’s star power should not be underestimated. Easily one of the most commanding emcees in the current hip-hop landscape, it somehow feels like the Griselda lyricist remains eternally slept on, revered as a cult legend despite talent befitting a superstar. At thirty-nine years old, Conway has had time to hone his craft and establish his principles. He remains unique in the sense that he actively seeks to have his greatness recognized by his peers, forging a bloodstained path on his unrelenting quest for rap deification.