January 26, 2001 at 05:00 AM EST

Rufus Wainwright
A new album Poses a big question: Is the world ready for classical rock?

Rufus Wainwright is still burned that his gushed-over 1998 baroque-pop debut didn’t burn up the charts. On his just-completed follow-up, Poses, he ”wanted to be more direct and less esoteric. With my classical training and love of opera, I wanted to keep that [influence]. But I want them to play me at the bar at the end of the night, and not only at the afternoon cocktail party. I want to be a rock star, basically. I’ve made a deal with the devil!” There are plenty of devilish details in songs like ”Cigarettes and Chocolate Milk,” an ode to excess, and the title track, about ”a young man who moves to New York, becomes a prostitute, and leaves looking 85 years old. The kids are gonna love it.” (April 17)

Janet Jackson
Tough love gives way to a positive vibe

On 1997’s The Velvet Rope, Janet Jackson refashioned herself as a kinky diva with an S&M fixation. For her upcoming, still-untitled disc, she’s put the whips in the closet. ”It’s about love,” she says. ”It’s not about my issues — at least, not those issues. [Rope] dealt with the darker side. This is a lot lighter.” In addition to working with her longtime producers Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, Jackson, 34, also corralled red-hot hip-hop knob twirler Rockwilder for two tracks, and wants to work with the Neptunes (see page 60). ”The stuff I’ve completed puts a smile on my face,” Jackson says. ”I always write about what’s going on in my life, and I’m in a very positive space.” (April, tentative)

Jessica Simpson
Trying to top Sweet‘s smell of success

Jessica Simpson wants us to love her forever — or at least for one more record. Now recording the follow-up to her 1999 debut, Sweet Kisses, the 20-year-old ballad belter and Britney-in-waiting admits bluntly, ”I haven’t had the success of the other girls … This album is crucial. It’s either me staying where I am, or taking off to the top.” Maybe that’s why Sony Music honcho Tommy Mottola is handpicking every song. ”It’s not just me singing about being in love. I also have heartbreak songs and girls-telling-off-guys songs,” says Simpson of the CD, which includes a 50-piece orchestra on two tracks. ”It’s going to take me a while to recoup [on] this album, because we spent a lot of money on it.” (April or May)

New Faces The Neptunes

A.K.A. Chad Hugo (below, left) and Pharrell Williams AGES Both 27 WHERE YOU’VE HEARD THEM The production duo crafted two of 2000’s hottest tracks, Mystikal’s ”Shake Ya Ass” and Jay-Z’s ”I Just Wanna Love U (Give It 2 Me).” COMING SOON In May, the pair will drop a debut album, In Search of … , under the group name N.E.R.D., that promises to elevate them from behind-the-scenes gurus to heavy-hitting headliners. ”It’s got rock, jazz, even punk — but it’s still primarily hip-hop,” Hugo says of the album. GIFTED PEDIGREE They met in a high school jazz band on the fertile hip-hop soil of Virginia Beach, also home to Missy Elliott and Timbaland. WHY THEY STAND OUT Eclectic style and expansive tastes have led everyone from Noreaga and Ol’ Dirty Bastard to Prince, Marilyn Manson, and Michael and Janet Jackson to seek their counsel. REASON TO GET EXCITED ”This album is only the brink,” Williams says. ”I’ll feel successful when my songs are deemed ‘Tunes That Changed the World.”’ (May)

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