On the patio at Jakes Burgers and Beer on McKinney Avenue lies a small gazebo with a four-top table. Sitting at this table across from me is 18-year-old Mjay Denman, and across from him is half of his management team. The former is a rising hip-hop artist who performs under the stage name SADFACETHUGGIN (often stylized as SADFACETHUGGIN:( or Sadfacethuggin), and the latter consists of music industry renaissance men who run Pitch Black The Label and manage Denman’s music career while carefully maintaining Jandek-esque anonymity.
“A lot of artists don’t really talk to their managers,” said the Dallas-based rapper as he chowed down on a patty melt and tater tots. “We talk nonstop. We wake up, talk. Before we go to sleep, talk.”
As impeccably attuned as their careers are to one another, it was a fortuitous turn of events that brought Denman and Pitch Black The Label together.
Since 2010, the founders of Pitch Black The Label wore many hats as promoters, artist managers and label managers. During this time, they booked Texas legs for artists such as Jon Connor, Snow Tha Product and Kirko Bangz. They eventually shifted their granular focus to talent scouting.
“We called [Denman], and we had a conversation with him,” one of the co-founders explained. “He was building an organic fan base, dropping songs on SoundCloud every couple of weeks. The numbers were going crazy, crazy, crazy.”
They recognized Denman’s stylistic versatility and unique approach to recording, and upon listening, decided to structure a business model similar to that of Top Dawg Entertainment’s — operate as both a record label and artist management firm, and in doing so, provide the artist studio time, a marketing/promotion apparatus and a team of industry professionals who will collectively work to advance their career.
As the plans for the new business venture were still being workshopped, they pitched the idea to Denman and his parents.
“At that point in time, when we sent the contract, we didn’t have a name for the company yet,” they admitted. “A couple weeks later, we came up with the name Pitch Black The Label.”
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It takes immense faith to structure an entire enterprise of this sort around a single artist, but that faith in Denman is by no means misplaced.
Since he was 6 or 7 years old, Denman has written between 300 and 400 songs. Singles such as “Cancer” and “Illuminati” have more than half a million streams on SoundCloud. His breakout hit “Fuck Luv” has more than 300,000 streams on Apple Music and received a nod from Zane Lowe, who premiered the single on Apple Music’s Beat 1 station and played the song’s chorus on a continuous loop. Another Beat 1 DJ, Travis Mills, premiered the SADFACETHUGGIN song “Sleeping With You” in October.
Drawing inspiration from SoundCloud trailblazers such as XXXTentacion, Denman finally began recording during his freshman year of high school. He would purchase beats from producers on YouTube, dub lo-fi vocal recordings over them and upload them onto SoundCloud (these recordings have since been removed). As his music began to garner buzz, Denman dropped out of high school.
“I struggled with school a lot,” he conceded. “Of course, I’ve outgrown the characteristics I had, but eventually, I said ‘Fuck it.’”
Indeed, Denman would mature beyond his high school years, an era in his life in which he was ornery and more prone to drug abuse. He candidly discusses the latter in “Fuck Luv” with the lyrics “Throw my heart away, save it for another day / Drugs won’t change the truth, but it gon’ numb the pain.”
Emotional catharsis of this sort is in no way an anomaly for him. The name SADFACETHUGGIN alone is a blatant defiance to the toxic masculine tradition of suppressing tears and not making any indication of melancholy or heartbreak. But Denman goes beyond simply making indication of melancholy and heartbreak. He unashamedly wears them on his sleeve and expresses them with more emotional depth than his average contemporary.
“When we dropped a video, we scrolled through the comments. There was a woman that said, ‘This song helped me get through my divorce,’” said one of the co-founders of Pitch Black The Label. “You could be in your mid-30s or 40s, and you can still connect with his music.”
During his high school years, Denman’s mother gave him advice on dealing with his emotional baggage, saying, “You’ve got to thug that shit out.” As the mantra “thug it out” rang in Denman’s head, he ended the revolving door of short-lived stage names with the name “SADFACETHUGGIN.” To him, that name signifies navigating through life’s struggles effectively without nipping them in the bud. It signifies the act of constructively coping without fear of expressing vulnerability.
Denman’s honing of the SADFACETHUGGIN brand reached a new peak in December as he embarked on a Texas tour with 21 Savage protégé Young Nudy, a run that included a show at Trees. Not even two years before this, he played his first live show at the Green Elephant.
“[The promoter] was sending slots. $200,” said Denman. “I was broke. I didn’t have $200. I didn’t even have $1.”
One morning, Denman decided to remedy his lack of funds. At 8 a.m., he took an Adderall, grabbed a lawn mower from his garage and went door to door in his neighborhood, offering to mow people’s lawns for $20. At around 3 p.m. that afternoon, he had mowed 10 lawns and acquired $200 to play the show.
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“When I got that money, I felt so accomplished,” Denman said. “I called the promoter that same day, and he said, ‘You a hustler.’”
His fabled work ethic is being channeled into the completion of his debut full-length Sadface III, which is preceded by two 2018 EPs: Sadface and Emotionless – Sadface II. According to his management, major labels and talent agencies have already expressed interest in signing Denman.
While he looks back on the hustle manifested in his Adderall-fueled mowing spree rather proudly, Denman has endeavored to use his bully pulpit to combat the glamorization of drug use. Abuse of opioids, such as Fentanyl, and benzodiazepines, such as Xanax, have reached epidemic proportions and in the process have claimed the lives of artists, such as Mac Miller and Lil Peep.
Like those artists, Denman has encountered his share of struggles and articulates them, but having been lucky enough to overcome drug abuse and see the other side at such a young age, his message is one of hope: Make yourself vulnerable throughout your struggles, and no matter what, just thug it out.