Last night, Phora turned 21. The evidence of his surprise party still decorates his house in Corona: half-devoured birthday cakes, black and white balloons, empty beer cans and paper streamers.
There's ample cause for celebration. On the same October day that the Anaheim-raised rapper became old enough to legally sip Modelos, the self-described "'90s baby" dropped his fourth independent album — Angels With Broken Wings. Without a manager, publicist or label, it soared to No. 6 on the iTunes hip-hop albums chart, sandwiched between releases on Def Jam and Roc Nation. The funding came from Phora's largely college-age fans, who contributed more than $65,000 via Kickstarter to make it happen.
"He has a rare storytelling ability that allows people to really feel like they know him," says Eskupe, one of Phora's longtime producers. "His appeal is similar to J. Cole. After listening to an album or two, you feel like he's your friend."
Phora's mission emerges within the first seconds of the new album: "This is inspired by all the people across the world who had a voice that was never heard." Then, over retrofitted boom-bap beats, the rapper born Marco Archer chronicles his bouts with psychological turmoil, relationship woes, past misdeeds and his father's struggles with addiction and incarceration.
The indelible bond between fan and artist is obvious on his Instagram and YouTube pages, where his videos regularly clock seven-figure views. A typical comment: "Phora should be known already ... worldwide, I believe he would change the world for real. Who else agrees?" Many do.
But there's a scenario where that never happens. Last night's birthday party could've easily been a wake, and his album a posthumous memorial to a career tragically cut short.
Around 2 a.m. on Aug. 25, a gray Infiniti sedan pulled up alongside Phora, who was driving home with his girlfriend on the 210 freeway in Pasadena. Before he could react, a .45 caliber pistol unloaded three bullets into his neck and back, narrowly missing his vertebrae. The crime remains unsolved.
"It felt like something out of a CIA assassination," Phora recalls. "I was just minding my own business, driving the speed limit, saw the car pull up, and that was it. It was crazy."
He left the hospital after a few hours, fearful that the shooter would return to finish the job. He denies gang affiliations and says he has no clue about the motives or even potential suspects. But he's well aware of how it might look less than random, especially considering he's covered head to toe with more tattoos than 2Pac.
"I don't want people to get the misconception that I'm a thug," Phora says. "I'm trying to put a positive message out there and let people know that these actions aren't cool. People might think, 'Look at those tattoos, he deserves it,' but you can't shoot someone just because of what they look like."
The positivity isn't a put-on. Phora smiles constantly and has a prematurely wise, calming air about him. If you were looking for trouble, Corona, a tract-home suburb an hour east of L.A., is the last place you'd move. Besides, in just two decades, he's already had his fair share of turmoil.
Phora grew up about as far as possible from the Orange County clichés fictionalized on The O.C. and Laguna Beach. His dad was a ne'er-do-well white rapper, who used to sell his CDs in the Food for Less parking lot, young son in tow.
"Watching him, I learned that there just had to be a better way to make it," Phora says.
He mostly lived with his mother, an African-American woman raised in Orange, who met his father at a local Hometown Buffet. After they split, she went from job to job, struggling to pay the bills. The tattoo script, "Forgive Me Mother," stands out on Phora's arm.
"That's just to remind me how much I've put my mom through," Phora admits. "She's a good person who didn't deserve it."
He started tagging young, and his psychedelic bombing canvasses can still be seen with a cursory Google image search. Phora, which was also his graffiti name, "doesn't mean anything. I just liked the symmetry of it and how the letters looked together."
He got a little too good and drew attention from law enforcement. Multiple arrests and subsequent stints at juvenile hall, work camps and continuation schools followed.
At 15, Phora was stabbed while walking home from school. He's vague about the details but describes seeing someone he barely knew, then remembers it turning into an ambush.
"I got hit from behind and took off running. People started popping up out of the bushes," Phora remembers. "I didn't know I got stabbed until afterward. It was super-serious. I almost died and in some ways I felt like I actually did."
After the attack, Phora devoted himself to hip-hop and tattooing. In the 11th grade, he dropped out to become a freelance tattoo artist and used the money to fund his rap dreams. He parlayed renown from his graffiti and tattoo skills into a nascent fan base, then expanded it with an indefatigable work ethic and, much later, co-signs from Hopsin and the Funk Volume crew.
For the last two years, major labels have steadily approached, but Phora has rebuffed all entreaties to date. That's much rarer than you'd think. For every Chance the Rapper, there are 100 others who happily took the money. And at this moment, Phora is every A&R vice president's dream, arguably the most popular unsigned rapper in one of the nation's biggest markets.
But for now he's committed to doing it himself, for as long as that's physically possible. One of his tattoos reads, "Late Nights Never Sleep," a testament to the sacrifices he's made in order to escape and ascend.
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"I'm over here losing my mind every day," he says from his bare-bones home studio — a mic, a computer, some speakers. "Sometimes I think I want to hire a manager or just want to sign to a major. But at the end of the day, all the stress is worth it. I'd hate to have someone trying to control me."