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The Next Thing: 7 Is A Lucky Number For R&B Stars hide

There was a time when pop-music producers were cloaked behind the musician's screen. Only the most devoted fans and avid combers of Rolling Stone knew the names making the stars shine. The rest of us just jammed out to the tunes.

No longer - not since P. Diddy was known as Sean "Puffy" Combs. These days The Neptunes, Rockwilder, Jermaine Dupri and Missy Elliot are held in the same high regard as the artists to whom they've lent their golden touch - Mary J. Blige, Tweet and Jay-Z among them. The hot production crew right now is Irv Gotti's Murder Inc.

But the bigger news is that Murder's hottest star, 7 Aurelius, is rising in his own right. 7 is the man behind the catchy pop tunes on R&B artist Ashanti's debut album, a CD that has made her one of the hottest divas of the past year. He's polished tracks for Ja Rule, J. Lo, Eve and Janet Jackson, and has a reputation for combining melodious bubbly pop music with a sexy, jagged edge.

He is also very confident of his talents. Just to prove he's got chutzpah, he's even working with the more notorious luminaries in R&B. His highest-profile client other than Jackson? The flighty Mariah Carey. Next up with him in the studio: Whitney Houston.

And to lacquer his image as a risk-taker, he's even gone on record with The Associated Press, saying he'd like to sign "American Idol's" eliminated Pink doppelganger, Nikki McKibbin, to his new label, The Seventh Sign. Talk about testing your Midas touch. Whether he sets a gold standard, well, that's something to watch for in the coming year. Don't be surprised if 2003 is the magic number for 7.

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