In 2018, Benny the Butcher might have put out the best Griselda Gang record of the year. Fans of Westside Gunn’s Hitler Wears Hermes series or Supreme Blientele may disagree, as may Conway the Machine and Everybody is F.O.O.D. devotees, but Benny’s Tana Talk 3 found the fearsome Buffalo threesome embroiled in friendly fire, each gunning for the top spot. Regardless of your opinion on the debate, Benny has spent the past few years making it abundantly clear that there’s a space for him within Griselda’s top tier, a result of pitch-perfect shit talk, a growing camaraderie with brothers Westside and Conway, and a fierce independent streak that’s expanded his scope outside of upstate New York.

On the just-released The Plugs I Met, Benny both sticks to what he knows and begins to expand his empire as a solo artist outside of the impeccably run Griselda machine. It’s a wise move. Benny will always have allies in the brothers he’s spent this decade lording over Buffalo with, but the moves he makes on Plugs allows him to build an infrastructure in which Griselda is more of a puzzle piece than a defining characteristic.

The first thing you notice on Plugs are the guests. Black Thought on track two; 38 Spesh and Jadakiss on track three. RJ Payne and Conway hop on the following song, and then there’s Pusha-T on “18 Wheeler,” a collaboration that feels like a watershed moment for Benny. It’s less the passing of a torch than another addition to an empire; the lord of coke rap diversifying his assets with another kingpin. The track includes an already-iconic Benny line: “If me and Push would have linked back when I was a dealer/that’s an 18 wheeler/to my town from Virginia.” The beat is all soulless, dead-eyed synths and heavy boom-bap. The two fit so perfectly together, it’s almost worth lamenting that this is the first time Benny and Push have hopped on a track together. But then you run it back and all is forgiven.

Benny Is a uniting force, a welder of styles. He takes the coke raps of Virginia Beach with the horror stories of Buffalo and sharpens them with veteran raps from years on the Philly streets.

Benny’s rise has been both meteoric and slow-building. He’s been considered by some to be Griselda’s third wheel since the group’s inception, but this placement has actually allowed him to move more freely than a typical group member would. With Tana Talk 3, Benny wasn’t necessarily growing outside of Griselda, but the album was proof that his formula worked just as well with Alchemist and Daringer as Conway and Westside’s did. For further evidence, while the latter two were snagging Eminem co-signs, Benny was decamping to J. Cole’s Dreamville camp for whatever strange thing Cole was cooking up in North Carolina. And when it came time to dole out features for DJ Premier’s new single, “Headlines,” Westside, Conway, and Benny all make appearances.

Benny is by no means looking past Griselda and all it’s done for his career to be associated with the collective, but with The Plugs I Met it’s comforting to know that his vision isn’t dictated by any other forces outside of himself. Benny’s a cog in Griselda’s machine, but he’s more than a team player. Plugs proves that seven times over, although its short length does leave more to be desired.

Sugary soul vocals back the weepy strings on the Black Thought-featuring “Crowns for Kings.” Benny is strategically just behind the beat, chasing it in a way that naturally imbues his voice with an urgency and desperation. The content doesn’t change just because Black Thought has hopped aboard, either. “I sat back, a vet, and watched beginners winning my belts/Burnt my bridges, came back a good swimmer like Phelps,” he raps. Black Thought’s verse is all old-head wisdom with an “I been there before” mentality.

The various guests on The Plugs I Met illustrate something key to Benny’s success: He’s a uniting force, a welder of styles. He takes the coke raps of Virginia Beach with the horror stories of Buffalo and sharpens them with veteran raps from years on the Philly streets. Benny the Butcher is more than the sum of his parts, and the way he retains his aesthetic while floating in and out of his guests’ gives the album a plethora of voices.

Within its 30-odd minutes, Benny gives us a tour of his constantly expanding universe. It’s one that grows, both with Griselda, and outside of it. He’s a product of this environment, but he also uses it to springboard to new places. Look, this is still high-end drug rap best suited for the East Coast, but just because you know what you’re good at doesn’t mean it’s not worth doing. Benny the Butcher knows exactly what he’s excellent at and does it again and again.

The variances lie in subtleties: the flow switches, the rhyme schemes, and the beat selection. One move in the wrong direction can blow your spot. Conversely, one crafty switch-up can take you to places never before imagined. Maybe it’s to Virginia in an 18-wheeler, or maybe it’s to North Carolina to visit rap’s favorite son with no features. Regardless, Benny the Butcher is going there, when a few years back he’d be hard pressed to leave Buffalo. The world is Benny’s, and he’s starting to realize it.