Shining in authentic old-school blues fashion, guitar virtuoso Gary Clark Jr.’s major-label debut, “Blak and Blu,” brings true soul and pain back to an R&B realm that has been wallowing in overproduced hip-hop. Clark’s earnest tone and masterful guitar playing should definitely earn this album a spot as one of the year’s best.

Opening up with the brass filled “Ain’t Messin ‘Round,” Clark shows off his range going from intense cries of, “Give it up now,” to a soothing falsetto, “Play it cool.” The brass and frantic guitar solo in the second half of the song kicks off the album in a thrilling way.

One of the biggest highlights of “Blak and Blu” comes in “When My Train Comes In,” a track that slowly builds up with Clark lamenting his unfulfilling life in a boring town where no one cares for each other. Clark sings over this slow, but rhythmically chugging guitar for about four minutes before he explodes in the most expressive guitar solo heard. Heavy distortion, jarring changes of pace and the whining, nearly desperate voice of the guitar emote much more than lyrics could.

Clark does experiment with modern R&B, however. Tracks such as “Blak and Blu,” and “The Life” show a different side of the singer. Loop-like drum beats and more understated guitar fill these songs, which sound much more produced than the rest of the album. Though they are solid songs, they are noticeably different from the rest of the album and sound more similar to some of today’s radio hits, which jars the flow a bit.

“Blak and Blu” becomes more diverse through songs such as the Chuck Berry-esque “Travis County,” the high powered, harmony drenched “Glitter Ain’t Gold” and the deafening roar and pain of “Numb.” “Please Come Home,” is a yearning, 50s sounding love ballad, while “Third Stone From the Sun / If You Like You Say,” is an epic nine minute plunge into the absolute depth of emotional guitar playing.

The album is truly diverse and maintains a sense of true old-school blues mixed with modern sentiments while keeping Clark’s signature raw sound. Though its changes in pace don’t always flow perfectly, Clark’s stellar musicianship and genuine lyrics and voice shine through for a refreshing change of pace in mainstream rock and blues alike.

3 Stars