Nestled in Downtown L.A.’s art district on a cloudy Tuesday afternoon, the 30-year-old singer is seated at a table inside Cafe Gratitude. While a vegan restaurant might be the last place you’d expect to see an R&B artist, Lloyd is on different wave these days. The New Orleans-born-Atlanta-bred crooner hasn't eaten meat in five years, along with cutting sugars and processed foods out of his diet. Food restrictions are a portion of Lloyd's overall transformation, that includes being "less reckless" in regards to women. In fact, he credits his 4-year-old and 1-year-old nieces with changing the way that he treats the opposite sex.

“I love my nieces, let that be the first thing I state on the record,” he tells VIBE over lunch. “My nieces made me reevaluate how everything represents them. Unfortunately, it takes some kind of a catalyst–even though we all have mamas and sisters and strong women to draw from–but my nieces made me care about what it means to love a woman."

Over the last several years, Lloyd has been on a self development journey, which involved taking a break from music. “I didn’t have to put out albums for a check,” he says. “[But] I had to do that when Katrina happened. I had to put out Street Love because I didn’t have a choice, my family was [displaced].”

For more than half of his life, music has been both a passion and a paycheck. Lloyd signed his first record deal at 10 years old, and put out his first project by age 13 as a member of the teen pop group N-Toon. Once the group dismantled, he hopped around different labels and eventually landed at Irv Gotti’s Murder Inc. Records where he released his 2004 debut album Southside. Thanks to the album's title track and single, "Hey Young Girl," buzz around the “curly headed black boy” was building, and it may have been too fast for him to keep up. “My life wasn’t mine anymore—which is a blessing, not a complaint,” he says of entering the music business early on. “But it took me away from people who I really needed at times, and who I felt really needed me.”

“I started to redesign myself.”

In 2007, Lloyd snagged his first Top 10 single with the Lil-Wayne assisted, “You.” The lead track from his Street Love LP landed at No. 9 on the Billboard Hot 100, and topped the Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs charts. Over the next two years, he would release Lessons in Love, sever ties with Murder Inc. and join Interscope Records. Before his 2011 album, King of Hearts, was released, Lloyd decided to chop off his hair and donate it to children with cancer. “It was supposed to be a reflection of ‘From this day forward, I’m going to rebuild, strip it all the way down to work on myself.' Cutting off a big part of me for someone else was the first step.”

The haircut triggered a transformation that made him move from Atlanta to Los Angeles. “I was focused on trying to not look to other people for validation,” he reveals. “To not point the finger anymore, to not require anything but accountability for my own actions. I started to redesign myself.”

Ben Styles

Embracing a new mindset and a new diet began to rub off on his family, a feat he describes as one of his “prouder” accomplishments. “Being from New Orleans, growing up Creole and just eating every fucking thing under the sun, every kind of butter and hot sauce—it’s delicious, but it’s not good,” he explains mentioning the "scary moment" when he learned that his cousin had diabetes. “My cousin was my best friend, and he got diabetes in his early 20s, so the fact that I got my mama making quinoa and pastas now–nobody ate quinoa as far as I’m concerned up until a few years ago–adding more vegetables, fruits, less preserved foods, that was our start.”

Besides the dietary switch, Lloyd committed to twice-daily workouts at UCLA's Drake Stadium and began getting visits from the likes of Diddy, Ciara, and producer Polow Da Don. “We were all doing it together," he recalls. "It definitely wasn’t the easiest thing I’ve ever done, but it was one of the most important, and it bled into my whole approach to music, the kind of music that I was looking for.”

The search took him outside of his comfort zone, and into a space that made him feel as "organic" as the food he was consuming. “I started listening to Fela Kuti, Brazilian jazz, and Marvin Gaye—and not like the final product. I was listening to the demos from Marvin Gaye," he clarifies. "I started only buying real records and getting lost in Miles Davis and [John] Coltrane and Porgy and Bess, and then I was like ‘I need a talent.”

Ben Styles

The newly-discovered “talent” came in the form of a guitar (named Sylvia, after his late grandmother), and he played it every day. Between perfecting his chords, and hitting the road with Lil Wayne, Trey Songz, and Diddy’s Dirty Money crew, Lloyd decided to leave L.A., and move back to Atlanta.

“I didn’t have to put out albums for a check. [But] I had to do that when Katrina happened.”

“I was missing the people that really mattered most,” he confesses. “When I was in L.A., I was by myself, which was another challenge, to eliminate myself from what I call ‘healthy distractions.' I had my house in Atlanta and I had an apartment [in L.A.] on Sunset [Boulevard], and it was like ‘Why am I wasting money?’ So I went back to Atlanta. I got back home and I realized that I missed it so much," adds Lloyd. "Although I’ve experienced a lot and I’ve got so much to share, I missed a lot and I just wanted to be there to catch up, to participate in a way that I never could.”

Being back home meant that he wasn't missing out on family milestones, including helping his sister–who was in medical school at the time–during her pregnancy. But despite driving her to the hospital, he missed his niece's birth due to commitments back in L.A.

“I cried on the plane,” he admits. “I really wanted to be there, this was special. My mom said ‘Boy you got nothing to cry about because you’re gonna be a great uncle, and when she gets older she’s gonna love you for going out there in the world and doing what you love.’ So with that, I started to try to accept the fact that I’m going to have to learn how to balance [work and family] because I started to love it too much."

“I loved being a recluse, going to the grocery store, being a regular motherfu**a.’ People would come up to me and say, ‘Are u making anymore music? We miss you,’ and I would say ‘Are you not happy with what u hear? What do you need me for?’”

By this point in Lloyd's hiatus, taking his niece to get ice cream became more appealing than hitting the studio, though he still made time for fitness. He tried out Bikram yoga, and participated in 5k runs, before things began to change again. “I started to feel the itch that happens to all of us that really love this [music] shit," admits the singer. "I had to go.”

The push back into recording came from a friend who needed help with a track for another artist. While at the studio, Lloyd ran into Shakespeare, the producer behind TLC’s “No Scrubs,” Destiny Child’s “Bill, Bills, Bills,” and more. “He was one of the people who I never worked with but I always respected,” notes Lloyd. “And out of that [meeting] we began to work on [the song] ’Tru.’”

Word began to spread that he was making music again, and the chatter resulted in a phone call from Ghazi Shami founder of EMPIRE distribution, the San Francisco-based label whose credits include D.R.A.M.’s “Broccoli,” Fat Joe and Remy Ma’s “All the Way Up,” and Rich Homie Quan’s “Flex (Ooh, Ooh, Ooh).” He took the meeting with the label exec, and although Shami was excited about “Tru,” Lloyd had reservations. He wasn’t sure where the song would fit with trap records permeating radio. Eventually, Lloyd entered into a deal with EMPIRE, with a plan to “release one song, and see how it goes.” “Tru” debuted in May, as the title cut off his four-song EP, which was released in early December. On the Justice League-produced track, Lloyd discusses his time off, and the loss of his unborn child due to an abortion.

“It’s very rare that I’ve been a part of something that’s come out that’s as pure and honest as that,” he says of the single. “I didn’t wanna come back with turn up [music]. I thought it was important for me to attack it on an honest and truthful level but also from a vulnerable place as a man—because that’s what my nieces made me. That’s what the women in my life made me. For me to abandon that just for record sales or a check, or some quote-un-quote ‘bi***es’? That would never suffice.”

Instead, the track went on to became a cathartic experience and an act of gratitude for his fans. “That was my moment to show them what they mean to me,” he explains. “I started working on ‘Tru’ and it had everything that I needed: the guitar and the story. That’s all I wanted. The way Bob Dylan built his music. Of course, if I come out playing all acoustic sets with my Bob Dylan hat on people are gonna say ‘This nigga’s having a mid-life crisis,‘ but I was like ‘Let me find a balance between the worlds that I’m in love with. I thought that was the best way to keep it in the same vein of what I’ve done before but also to have everything that I was looking to move towards.

“Now I can play my music with just the guitar, I can strip it down to its simplest form and I think that’s special,” he says looking down at his vegan meal. “Just like with my food, I can strip it down to the simplest form and still enjoy it and know that it’s not just how it looks and tastes, it's about how it makes me feel. How it feeds my soul, my body, and my spirit.”

The fan feedback allowed Lloyd to see his own music differently. “It made me respect the idea that [my fans] are real individuals, not just numbers in the matrix.  These are real people going through real issues every day, and something that I’m doing with all my heart is giving them something they need. That made me respect it more, respect them more.”

In August, Lloyd debuted the “Tru” music video which was shot in his East Atlanta stomping grounds, with only a director, an assistant, and a Bluetooth speaker. The visual has garnered more than 16 million views on YouTube to date. “I will tell you this, I felt like I had some gum on my shoe for those first scenes,” he says. “To this day I still get [emotional when the single] comes on the radio. It’s hard to listen to, when I heard it the first few times I fuckin’ cried. It’s that kind of thing for me.”

With his upcoming fifth studio album, Out My Window, Lloyd is officially moving at his own pace, which means no deadlines and no gimmicks. “There is no quota to be met,” he asserts. “It’s just feelings, and I believe that it won’t take as long to capture the feelings. The dopest thing about the past four years for me was that it was four years. We don’t always have the luxury of time, the blessing of patience. I had some patient ass fans and friends, and I had time to develop and grow, and nurture myself.”