During the first three years of her pop-music career, Britney Spears released three albums, one each year. The eponymous single from 1999’s …Baby One More Time hit the No. 1 spot on Top-40 radio, but it only ascended to No. 55 on Billboard’s year-end chart — though the single was released just on vinyl, not CD, to encourage album sales. On the 2000 year-end chart, Destiny’s Child, Aaliyah, and Janet all outperformed “Oops!… I Did It Again,” the lead single from the album of the same name. The sound of pop music was changing, so, in 2001, Spears changed with it, releasing her self-titled album Britney. When we hit play on our metaphorical Walkman, the skittering beats of “I’m a Slave 4 U” transport us into a new epoch.
With her new sound, Britney signaled that she had moved beyond Swedish-produced-pop polish for an entirely new sonic identity, just as she had left behind the ingenue character of her first two albums. Working on “I’m a Slave 4 U” with Pharrell Williams and Chad Hugo, better known together as the Neptunes, Spears evolved her sound to sit alongside the R&B of her chart peers. Now with a soundtrack of off-kilter beats and harmonic dissonance, Spears needed a new vocal approach.
She dropped the ballad-style singing from her earlier hits, instead opting to combine her controlled vocal fry and rhythmic percussiveness with a sort of sing-speaking throughout. We hear this transformation in the raspy breath and half-whispered vocals that open the song. The melody is loose because this is a dance song, not a sing-along. As she says, “Dancing’s what I love — now watch me.” In the accompanying video, and on the MTV Video Music Awards stage that year, we would watch Spear dance, the start of a whole new musical era for her.