Tauheed Epps’ commercial career as 2 Chainz started with a joke: “Cut the top off, call it Amber Rose” he declared at the start of Based on a T.R.U. Story. As far as rap similes go, it’s not bad, but there was a significant risk as far as establishing legitimacy as an M.C. Even with hip-hop heads knowing of Tity Boi from associations with Ludacris and Playaz Circle, 2 Chainz stood to be seen as nothing more than a punchline prince: someone who could be an ace in the hole for features but whose ability to carry a full album might be in doubt.

To be fair to any doubters, it’s taken some time for 2 Chainz to come across as someone who could carry a whole album. Based on a T.R.U. Story and follow-up B.O.A.T.S II #METIME cast doubts about how far he could go. Collegrove was a partial Lil Wayne collaboration that didn’t come to total fruition but which reaffirmed 2 Chainz ability to assert chemistry with just about any artist. Pretty Girls Like Trap Music felt like a proper introduction, where an artist well into his 30s could show us who he really was.

He’s always been an admirable and hugely charismatic figure. His punchlines are prone to heavyhandedness but his confident, deadpan delivery means that he can brush off any duds better than most. As a featured artist, he’s become a saving grace, capable of salvaging just about any weak track to make it bearable for his inclusion alone.

But there’s much about 2 Chainz that, if not unknown, hasn’t been discussed as much on record by him. Rap or Go to the League doubles as the title of his fifth full-length and an ultimatum to many a black male trying to escape poverty. Once a member of Alabama State University’s basketball team, he pursued the former, but it’s never as simple as just saying what you want and then getting it, despite what motivational poster sloganeering would have you believe. LeBron James is the executive producer, but there’s no indication of him trying to sway 2 Chainz into regurgitating Nike ad lingo.

The 2 Chainz of this album is a bit more serious and therefore has less time for levity. The quotables that make you double-take and pause your stream are much fewer. Something like “Call me Trill Cosby, I might spike my own beverage” or the infamous “She got a big booty, so I call her ‘Big Booty’” has no place here. “It's yellow tape and white chalk when I'm on the beat” is a proficient bit of boastfulness, but there’s nothing distinctly 2 Chainzian about it.

Veering away from the punchlines doesn’t lessen his intrigue. If anything, this is the most captivating 2 Chainz has been, front to back. His seriousness is wrung not from dourness, but reflection. Even if the trials and tribulations he recounts are familiar, his detailing and delivery hold weight. Any preconceived notions of what a 2 Chainz album should be will be dashed by the harrowing opener, ‘Forgiven.’ Centered around a powerhouse chorus by Marsha Ambrosius, it kicks things off with archival audio of him being introduced as part of his high school’s starting basketball lineup before ending with a police shooting. These bookends (and spoken word dialogue in the outro) reinforce how young black men are commodified without actually being valued. He made it through, but others, like the murdered son of his friend Lil Fate, didn’t.

The message of this song (and others) is laid on thick (“If you're doin' somethin' to make your parents have to bury you. You may want to slow down”), but 2 Chainz succeeds by acting as a concerned mentor who can relate, not an out-of-touch scold. The rough past and the more serene present can coexist, like on ‘Menace to Society,’ with enchanting 9th Wonder production and a life-affirming Truthettes sample, where he expresses regret over selling drugs to his mom and gratitude about his family life. His mellow, conversational flow often takes on a strong spoken-word quality as well, like he’s speaking off-the-cuff.

Rap or Go to the League is about a lot of things. Beyond being a portrait of a rapper as a quadragenarian, it’s also an examination of how the talents of black collegiate athletes are exploited (‘N.C.A.A.’), gripes about the government (closer ‘Sam,’ whose message is muddled by leaning into “lower taxes on the wealthy”-territory) a tribute to his beloved wife, Kesha (‘Rule the World’) and a celebration of the material goods that come with success. (‘High Top Versace’) On that ode to wealth, 2 Chainz and Young Thug vibe incredibly over a gliding beat from ATL Jacob. Thugger exhibits energy he hasn’t shown since Jeffery and 2 Chainz’s vocal contortions show he’s not above taking notes from his younger cohorts.

The guest list of this album is dense, particularly around the second half. Aside from Young Thug, Lil Wayne and E-40 are an energetic tag team on ‘2 Dollar Bill.’ Wayne temporarily steals the show from 2 Chainz as he unleashes a laundry list of “-air” rhymes. Chance the Rapper’s musings on predicting Trump would win is a good match for the melancholy ‘I’m Not Crazy, Life Is,’ but the same can’t be said for Kodak Black’s insufferable bragging and name-dropping. (“Remember Master P told me I was the new Diddy/Master P tried to sign me but I wasn't goin' for it/I told Birdman, ‘You is gon' need some more coins’”) On ‘Rule the World,’ Ariana Grande opens up the chorus with her go-for-broke belting to great results. Travis Scott’s feature on ‘Whip,’ is a Travis Scott feature, and if not for the beat transition in 2 Chainz’s second verse, it’d be hard to make a case for this not just being a bonus track.

All eyes are likely to be on one song: ‘Momma I Hit a Lick,’ which features not only a hyped-up verse by Kendrick Lamar but also production from Pharrell Williams. There’s a general weirdness to it that makes it a decently cool inclusion, particularly in the guttural hook of “Chilly” and 2 Chainz’s slipping into falsetto, but the promise of these three coming together is greater than what they’re able to produce, especially with a Kendrick feature that’s competent but well below his batting average and with some questionable lyricism. (“I leveled up past Fab Five/Your favorite rapper Desperate Housewives”)

The blemishes on Rap or Go to the League don’t change the fact that every single song has at least something great about it, which you can’t say about most 50-minute+ rap albums, let alone one made by someone who’s been around as long as 2 Chainz has. There’s no sign of resentment about his past, his age, or unwillingness to become better than he was the day before. 2 Chainz is human; 2 Chainz is divine.