The title of Lloyd’s fourth album, King of Hearts, boldly announces Interscope’s intent to make R&B royalty of the long B-listed singer. His two biggest rivals, Trey Songz and Chris Brown, both passed Lloyd over in the pipeline to stardom, and they both do forgettable cameo work here, offering Lloyd a polite, if unenthusiastic, welcome to the V.I.P. section. One need only compare Lloyd’s quirky, funky “Lay It Down” to any one of Songz or Brown’s big singles to figure out why he’s consistently overshadowed by his younger peers: Where the archetypal R&B lothario possesses no more valuable asset than his super-slick croon, Lloyd’s falsetto wails are kinky and adenoidal, less silky smooth than whiskey-sour. First single “Lay It Down” gifted Lloyd with a star-making showcase for his compellingly imperfect voice, but the rest of King of Hearts is stuffed with guest spots (13 over the course of 14 tracks) and trendy production choices, often leaving its ostensible hero looking like a minor aristocrat in a gaudy and overcrowded court.
Though he has to share the track with rap titans Lil Wayne and André 3000, Lloyd makes the most of “Dedication to My Ex (Miss That),” an ante-upping variation on Cee-Lo’s “Fuck You” meme. The retro soul track bumps along with naughty exuberance, though this time the expletive of choice is “pussy.” Lloyd gleefully castigates his ex, having moved on in all respects save for a lingering fondness for her nether regions, and André‘s guest spot is both understated and agile. In that context, Lloyd’s adolescent-sounding voice scans as impish and insinuating; it’s his best song to date, which makes it all the more regrettable that its NSFW lyrics will probably overshadow its hooks where radio is concerned. The next track, “Cupid,” immediately flips the script, casting Lloyd in the far less convincing role of tender romantic.
By the time the 55-minute album wraps up, Lloyd will also play gangsta, club king, and world-weary humanitarian. The something-for-everyone tact is handled capably from a production standpoint: Polow da Don, who handles nearly all of the tracks on King of Hearts, isn’t an original producer, aping Timbaland here and The-Dream there, but he’s a versatile and savvy follower. Unfortunately, the many faces of Lloyd don’t quite cohere, and the further the singer digresses from post-Cee-Lo soul, the more out of place he sounds. He’s particularly ill suited to ballads and anything with a remotely heavy beat. His pairing with Young Jeezy on “Be the One” is a particularly poor bid for street cred, as Lloyd sounds out of place next to the severe gangsta rapper.
Even so, nothing on King of Hearts can prepare a listener for its closing track. “World Cry” is an insufferable inspirational ballad in the tradition of “We Are the World,” wherein Lloyd summons R. Kelly and Keri Hilson for a stunningly shallow rap session on hatred, war, and the like. It aims to say something profound about the world we live in and ends up demonstrating that the average pop singer is far too insular and self-absorbed to say anything of interest. Though his competition is formidable, Kelly lands the worst lines in the song: “Cause hatred’s got ourselves in a pickle/Love costs five cents less than a nickel”—and something equally inane about wanting to produce in God’s studio.
As disasters like that attest, Lloyd fares best when he stays on the sillier, sexier side of things. When he’s on his game, he poses a less rigorously focus-grouped alternative to Bruno Mars’s tween-friendly pop-R&B, but every moment of genius on King of Hearts comes saddled with something less palatable. And yet its biggest problem isn’t consistency so much as a pronounced lack of showmanship: Lloyd is too frequently asked to share the spotlight, or else allowed to stand center stage on the condition that he contorts himself into some awkward pose. This is supposed to be his coming out (dash?) party, but instead you get the impression of having left a social event having only just been introduced to the host.