After the bubble-gum-pop that was 1999's ...Baby One More Time and the kittenish tease of 2000's Oops!...I Did it Again, Britney Spears decided she had enough of the cookie cutter pop world and stripped herself from its robot-like demands. Her third eponymous album—a millennial version of Janet Jackson's 1986 Control—remains her most underrated, yet it features some of the pop star's honest revelations. Many fans (including myself) look to 2003's In the Zone as the singer's best album to date. But if it wasn't for the soul searching and defiance that embodied the transitional Britney, its following LP may have not reflected just how ready she was to blossom into a confident woman.
Despite the critics' mixed reviews, Britney went on to be certified 4x Platinum in the U.S. and received a Grammy nomination for Best Pop Vocal Album. So in honor of its anniversary, let's get into our personal rankings of every song on the album!
Not even Dido could save this bore of a track. I skipped "I'm Not a Girl, Not Yet a Woman" when I first opened my CD package in 2001, and I continue to do so on Spotify. Britney's intent was good, but the end result of her trying to explain her frustrations with puberty comes off more cheesy than sentimental. Rating: 4/10
Britney's high-pitched vocals have become her signature, but this album was one of the last times where she truly showed off her deeply rich range. "Before the Goodbye" is a mix of hip-hop, pop, balladry and eurodance that makes it kind of wacky. But it's something only the Princess of Pop could pull off. Rating: 5.5/10
This song is one of the rare delicate moments on Britney, where she breathily reflects on her then-relationship with Justin Timberlake. Singing about getting lost in crystal skies and comparing her man to the track's lullaby-esque melody is simply beautiful. Rating: 6/10
Don't let her subtle vocals on this track fool you! "Let Me Be" is Britney's version of a middle finger to the industry, where she defiantly sings about wanting to be her own person. Lyrics like "Trust in my instincts / Trust that I know what's right" and "This is my show / Letting you know / Gotta go the way I go" became a dark foreshadowing of the artist's constrictive life later on in her career. Rating: 7/10
Janet Jackson is one of Britney's biggest inspirations, and "Boys" was actually recorded by her before it was given to Spears. So it's makes sense that it sounds like a track straight from Ms. Jackson's (and Prince's) playbook. Anchored by The Neptunes funkadelic production, Spears drips with a then-shocking sexuality that she later carried on In the Zone. Rating: 7.5/10
Spears and JT's relationship didn't last as long as we wanted it to, but at least they gave us gems like "What It's Like to Be Me." If "Boys" and "Lonely" was an homage to Janet, then this song embodied Michael Jackson—from the scratchy yelps to the punchy synths. Co-produced and co-written by Timberlake, it is Britney's feistiest moment on the album. Rating: 8/10
"Anticipating" lands in the middle of the album, and breaks up the sexy vibes with its vibrant sweetness. The disco-tinged song takes notes from Madonna's early '80s pop days and Janet's "All For You." With just one listen, I'm transported back to my 10-year-old self where I danced around to this effervescent song in the comfort of my bedroom. Rating: 8.5/10
I will forever make the argument that "I Run Away" is one of Britney's most underrated songs in her catalogue. Her vulnerability is remarkable yet heartbreaking, and the chorus continues to sting 15 years later: "Let's pretend that I've moved on / Then I'll tell myself that life goes on without you." If you've ever been at the opposite end of a breakup, blast this one as you wipe your tears away. Rating: 8.5/10
It's still mind-blowing that "Cinderella" never became a single, because it's undeniably one of the best tracks on Britney. Max Martin and Rami Yacoub (who worked on a majority on the album) take a simple fairy tale story and brilliantly transform it to a thrilling mid-tempo adventure. While the lyrics talk about a Cinderella finally getting the courage to leave a failed relationship, it could also reflect Britney's thoughts on her management. Once again, it's a sad foreshadowing of how restrictive her life soon became. Rating: 9/10
This is the song that started it all! "I'm a Slave 4 U" was Britney's sexual awakening and emergence as a woman, where the 19-year-old was unafraid to show off just how erotic she could get. A song that was also meant for Janet Jackson, it propelled Britney further into the urban realm (thanks to The Neptunes production and a slot on BET's 106 & Park). The opening line ("All you people look at me like I'm a little girl / Well did you ever think it'd be okay for me to step into this world?" solidified her stance as a bonafide pop star. "Slave" is suggestive, naughty, sweaty and remains one of the singer's most iconic musical moments. Rating: 10/10
"Slave" is Britney's classic song, but it's "Overprotected" that captures the album's soul-searching story. The singer was clearly fed up with being looked at under a microscope and sheltered by her team, and this was her musical way of venting. Her frustration carries the weight of the song, as she tries to find her own way. And the accompanying remix by Darkchild makes the angsty theme even more in-your-face.
The track's bridge explains it all: "I don't need nobody telling just what I wanna / What I what what I'm gonna / Do about my destiny / I say no, no / Nobody's telling me just what what what I want to do, do / I'm so fed up with people telling me to be someone else but me." Rating: 10/10