How do you make a sound as unpolished as Milwaukee lowend appeal to the masses?

That’s a puzzle it didn’t take the city’s rap scene long to solve. In its earliest incarnations just a few years ago, lowend was cheap and abrasive—all metronomic clap, distorted bass, and grating repetition—but the style has evolved quickly, and a new wave of Milwaukee rappers has figured how how to tame it for maximum saturation without compromising its peculiar charms.

This year, two artists in particular have brought lowend to a bigger audience than previously seemed imaginable: J.P. and 414BigFrank. Their success is so innately entwined it’s hard to write about one without the other. They’re friends and collaborators, and they’re bonded by a goofball sense of humor—both are almost as much comedians as they are musicians. Whenever they’re filmed together, be it in a music video or one of the many interviews they’ve given together, they look like a sketch comedy team.

Just watch them horse around in the video for “Locked In.” Within 20 seconds, their comedic personas are so defined you can almost imagine them in a buddy comedy where they inherit a cattle ranch or accidentally start a cult or something.

After years kicking around in the background of Milwaukee’s rap scene, posting funny videos online and gamely playing the sideman to bigger names, Big Frank ascended to the top this winter with a viral hit “Eat Her Up.” It’s an absolute earworm, lowend at its bluntest and catchiest, but it owed its vitality as much to Frank’s infectious dance, a jerky shoulder shimmy somewhere between a twerk, an Ethiopian Eskista, and a Hulkamania fight gesture. (I should be careful about assigning credit to the dance; I don’t know who first popularized all of these moves, some of which had been in the percolating in Milwaukee rap videos for a while, but both Big Frank and J.P. have run with them as a visual signifiers, and they’ve been key to their presentation).

J.P., meanwhile, first came to attention with a modest viral hit last year called “Juicy Ahh,” which he claims to have recorded in the time it took him to wait for a burger at an unusually slow McDonald’s. But it was the success of “Eat Her Up” this year that he says inspired him to record his woozy club track “Bad Bitty,” a soulful but decidedly casual cut that didn’t disguise he was making up the lyrics more or less on the spot—he sings it as if humming a half-remembered song to himself while making breakfast. The production is chintzy but J.P.’s voice is legit, a chesty croon that seems to tease, “just imagine how great I might sound if I really went for it.”

“Bad Bitty” blew up. Really, really blew up. For much of this spring, the song was often the first thing anybody with even a passing interest in rap heard when they fired up TikTok. One YouTube video of J.P. performing it has 11 million views (that’s not a typo—11 million). In a profile of J.P. last month, Billboard estimated the song’s “official” streams—however you even calculate that anymore—at 21 million. But that was as of very early May, before the song even hit peak saturation; I can’t even guess what that count would be now. By many metrics, it’s easily the most successful Milwaukee rap song of the last 20 years—not a viral hit, but a bona fide hit.

J.P. has found fans in Lil Uzi Vert, Wiz Khalifa, Sada Baby, and Chance The Rapper. He’s been profiled by most of the major rap publications you can think of. He carries himself like an old soul but he actually only just turned 20. He’s still in college, at UW–Stevens Point, where he’s a power forward for the basketball team. He’s literally juggling independent rap stardom between basketball practices.

Milwaukee rap history, of course, is littered with artists who scored a buzzy local or regional hit they could never quite parlay into something bigger. Even during the Milwaukee rap renaissance of the last six or seven years, it’s not uncommon to see artists get so caught up trying to squeeze a little more life out of their last hit that they never get around to making another. But both J.P. and Big Frank are firing off so much great music right now that they seem poised to avoid that trap.

Earlier this month, J.P. released his exceptional debut album, Coming Out Party, and it’s loaded with Dionysian club fantasias so delirious they make “Bad Bitty” sound like a mere trial run. The hooks are even stickier and more effortless; the production and J.P.’s voice alike gleam. Start to finish, the record is an absolute pleasure, one of the year’s finest, a perfect summer listen. If labels weren’t already flooding J.P. with offers after “Bad Bitty,” they will be now.

Frank, for his part, will release his own album next month, Can Never Make Me Hate You. He’s spent much of the year on the road and on stage, enjoying the shit out of his hard-earned stardom. On Instagram and TikTok, you can watch videos of him performing “Eat Her Up” any and everywhere imaginable – on WISN 12, as a surprise street festival performer, wearing a sombrero and rapping the song in Spanish for Cinco de Mayo, at a literal Chuck E. Cheese for a whole bunch of children who could not be more hyped. He’s a performer. He’s been ready for this moment his whole life. He’s not letting it pass him by. (On Saturday, July 6, Frank and J.P. will perform Summerfest’s American Family Insurance Amphitheater, opening for Lil Uzi Vert and Lil Yachty.)

The key to J.P. and Big Frank’s success is they don’t make music that just happens to come from Milwaukee. They make music that could only have come from Milwaukee. Several of their tracks make direct allusions to “Bow,” Ray Nitti’s club smash that for a good chunk of the ’10s was the only Milwaukee rap represented on local rap radio. Even their willingness to play the clown speaks to a distinctly Milwaukee mindset: Milwaukee rappers have long understood that they might not be able to compete on budget, fashion, or industry connections, but they could absolutely run the field on sheer, undeniable showmanship. They dance more freely than other rappers. They entertain more unabashedly. They aren’t afraid to skirt ridiculousness. Ridiculousness fuels them.

In his early years, long before anybody took him seriously, Frank used to post parodies of local rap tracks online. One of my favorites is his riff on Loonie Babie and Gwapo Chapo’s slap classic “All Racks,” which Frank twisted, in true “Weird Al” Yankovic form, into a food-centric sendup called “All Snacks.” He doesn’t just go for an easy parody of the chorus; he does the verses, too—he’d internalized the song line for line. In the video, when he isn’t balancing a Little Debbie snack cake on his back, he does a spot-on impression of Gwapo Chapo’s scowl. He’d clearly studied that expression; he probably practiced it in the mirror. From the beginning, Big Frank had an astute understanding that Milwaukee rap isn’t just a sonic medium. It’s a visual one, too.

I thought about that Gwapo Chapo parody when watching one of Frank’s newer posts this month: a video of Chris Brown doing Big Frank’s signature shoulder dance, wry static smile and all. It’s surreal. Five years ago, Frank was imitating niche Milwaukee rap acts. Now his style is being appropriated by one of the biggest R&B stars in the world.

It’s amazing, really, how quickly you can go from being on the outside looking in to the one that everybody else is watching.

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About The Author

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Evan Rytlewski is the former music editor for the Shepherd Express and web editor for Radio Milwaukee. His writing has appeared in Pitchfork, The A.V. Club, NPR, and The Washington Post.