This month's Grammy bash is all about the babes. That is, the young trio of rising stars--Alicia Keys, India.Arie, and Nelly Furtado--who are bringing sass and womanly soul back to pop

The Grammys can’t call this ”the year of the woman.” For one thing, National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences prexy Michael Greene already used that tag when there was an inordinately slanted slate of distaff nominees a few years ago. And for another, it’s just so ’90s. But maybe they — or we — could get away with the Year of the Twentysomething Urban-Leaning Freshwoman. Not that NARAS didn’t also make room for some daddies longer in the tooth and larger in the Adam’s apple—most notably U2, with eight nominations. But the real news is the collective 17 claimed by Alicia Keys’ Songs in A Minor, Nelly Furtado’s Whoa, Nelly!, and India.Arie’s Acoustic Soul, all critically acclaimed debuts that consumers also found easy on the ears. Never before has there been such overlap between the Song of the Year and Best New Artist categories…and for that matter, maybe, between the Grammy nominations and real-world credibility.

It wouldn’t be the Grammys — which will be broadcast live by CBS on Feb. 27 — without a little controversy. Some have wondered how Arie, whose album ”merely” went platinum, got an Album of the Year nomination while the heavily favored, 4-million-plus-selling Keys didn’t. Grammy watchers presume the secret Grammy committee that whittles down the top 20 vote-getters to the final five nominees felt that affording ”neo-soul” two best-album slots seemed disproportionate. And giving the lesser-known artist the edge allows the Grammys to claim a major career assist. Nevertheless, prognosticators figure Keys still has a lock on most of the six categories in which she’s nominated.

A jealous rage naturally ensued when EW gathered these three belles of the Grammy ball for a photo shoot the day after the American Music Awards—not. The downright sisterly vibe continued as we subsequently grilled them in pairs, talking first with Arie and Furtado in L.A., then later catching up with Arie and Keys in New York City. Arie, 26, had a high time delineating everyone’s astrological vitality, but you don’t need a star map to appreciate the differences: Fast-talking Furtado, 23, is full of nervous energy and natural exuberance; Keys, 21, has the laconic swagger of the rock star she threatens to become; Arie is more reserved, if not regal, but rises, once engaged, to her counterparts’ levels of loquaciousness and bracelet-rattling joie de vivre. A mix of excerpts follows, sans the high-fiving.

EW India and Alicia, you first met doing Oprah, right?

Keys Actually, we first met at the Hits magazine office, before either of our albums dropped. She was coming in, I was going out. And you know what they do with women; they try to make ’em not pass each other. ”Okay, Alicia’s coming in at this time, so get her out by the time India shows.” Like it matters!

Arie It’s insulting.

EW Do you get the impression that everyone expects you to be having a catfight over who gets to be queen of the Grammys?

Keys I do. If Bono and Bruce Springsteen were doing a duet together, people are gonna be like, ”Oh, my gosh, it’s gonna be fantastic!” And if two women are doing a duet together, it’s more like, ”Well, you should have seen what happened at the studio, and she didn’t come out of the dressing room, and they fought all the way to the limo.” Why why why? It’s very silly.