Blackout Turns 10: A Look Back at Britney Spears' Return From the Brink

Exclusive! Music producer Nate "Danja" Hills recalls his time working with the pop princess on one of her most iconic albums

By Billy Nilles Oct 25, 2017 3:52 PMTags

It's Britney, bitch.

They were just three simple words, but they came to define an era of Britney Spears' career. The last decade in the pop princess' life has been something of a rebirth, both personal and professional, as she bounced back from a painful divorce and a very public meltdown to reclaim her crown and become the undisputed Queen of Las Vegas in the process. And it all began with Blackout.

Released ten years ago today, Blackout was almost overshadowed by a period in the pop star's life that most fans can still only talk about in hushed tones. While her doomed marriage was finally ending and she was shaving off all her hair in public, she would also drop her first album in three years. With its explicit commentary on her fame (a first in her career) and a grimier sound than she'd ever embraced before, Blackout delivered some of the singer's most iconic songs in her discography. It may have been her first studio album not to debut at No. 1, but it would go on to shape the sound of pop music in ways you're still hearing on the radio, whether you realize it or not.

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The iconic pronouncement at the top of the album's first single, "Gimme More," may have become not only the thesis statement for that era in her career, but the defining quote of the last ten years of her life, but it was another pronouncement on another single that came first in the creation of the album.

It's been a while / I know I shouldn't have kept you waiting / But I'm here now.

So begins "Break the Ice," the fourth track on the album (and its eventual third single). Co-written by Keri Hilson and Nate "Danja" Hills, among others, it was the first track Spears would work on with Hills as a producer. It would also mark the first time Hills had produced anything on his own, having begun his career working in tandem with Timbaland on Nelly Furtado and Spears' ex Justin Timberlake's recent output.

"My first meeting with her was before a lot of the craziness happened. It was in Vegas, I believe, the first time we wrote and we did the record 'Break the Ice,'" Hills tells E! News. "But the first time, she was just open-minded about whatever or however the sessions were going to go. There was no set direction or anything. She was just very free-spirited. 'This sounds cool, that sounds cool. Let's go with it.' Very light-hearted and happy and fun."

Spears would work with Hills on a total five tracks for the standard version of Blackout, including the album's first single, "Gimme More." With its electropop sound and subversive lyrics about Spears' life in the limelight, the song would come to be the most synonymous with this era in her life, often liked to a disastrous VMAs performance in September of that year. And it was a track that Hills recalls Spears loving from the jump. 

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"How I knew she really liked the record was how I would see her when she was recording, just dancing. Not like she's on stage, but just all out, visualizing her dance moves while recording the song," he says. "She was very adamant about getting things right or how right we wanted her to have them as far as really nailing the lines or nailing a part in the vocals and things like that. She was just all in. She was willing to put as much energy into making sure it was all perfect as we were. That's why she sounds the way she sounds, because she put a lot into it...I'm watching her dance while we recorded her vocals through the window in the control room, and I was just like, ‘Wow, she really digs this.'"

And as for the iconic three words at the top of the record, Hills says they came about by means of an inside joke. And he's as surprised as anyone by the lasting power they've had. "All I know is we were in the studio recording and Jim Beanz, the co-writer and vocal producer, was like, ‘Can you say "It's Britney, bitch?"' It was some little inside joke happening in the studio and he just got her to say it…I was shocked that she said it and we kept doing the record," he explains. "You know, it's kind of like sometimes, anything can happen in the studio and when it hits the cutting room floor, what people hear may be different...I was shocked  that the execs and the A& R and everybody rolled with it...I had no idea that it would become kind of the marquee statement for the entire album, like the theme of the album and that time period and that moment in her career."

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As executive producer of the album, Spears would also re-enlist several songwriters and producers she'd worked with before Swedish songwriting duo Bloodshy & Avant (who were responsible for the smash hit "Toxic" on her 2003 album In the Zone), The Neptunes ("I'm a Slave 4 U" and "Boys" off of 2001's Britney) and Kara DioGuardi ("Brave New Girl" off of In the Zone). It was Bloodshy & Avant, real names Christian Karlsson and Pontus Winnberg, who would write "Piece of Me," the album's second single and its most explicit commentary on the press that had been swirling around her. 

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The last song written for Blackout, "Piece of Me" saw the writers taking a major risk. "There has always been an unwritten rule that no songs should be about Britney's life," Winnberg told Cafe in 2008. (They'd learned that lesson the hard way when they co-wrote the song "Sweet Dream My LA Ex" for Spears in 2003 as a response song to Timberlake's "Cry Me a River," which is widely believed to be about his famous ex. Spears' label rejected the song and it ended up being recorded by former S Club 7 member Rachel Stevens.) "We knew that the song broke all the rules we had received, but Britney loved it." Winnberg admitted. "When she came to the studio, she was extremely psyched, had learned the lyrics by heart in the car, and recorded the song [in] half an hour."

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Originally planned for a November 13 release, Blackout was rush-released once it began hemorrhaging all over the internet. That coupled with Spears' infamous performance at the MTV VMAs may have been the reason it was the first album in her career not to debut at No. 1. (It debuted at No. 2, behind The Eagles' Long Road Out of Eden.) But for fans like Jordan Miller, the founder of BreatheHeavy.com, a Spears fansite turned influential music blog, the leaks only fanned the flames of anticipation. 

"I remember reveling in the newness and the exclusivity of it," he tells E! News about his first listen. "Britney's personal life had overshadowed her music for a couple of years by that point, but hearing her new sound, how cohesive it felt, it reminded me that inside the near-inescapable paparazzi vortex was a singer, and despite the consuming fame was a pop star who still yearned to flex her artistry."

While the album would only go on to sell a third of what 2003's In the Zone sold globally and wouldn't even garner a tour to support sales (a decision stemming largely from Spears' ongoing personal issues in the beginning of 2008 that resulted in her being place in a conservatorship), Blackout has stood the test of time with a legacy that is still felt in music today. You can practically draw a straight line from what Spears and her collaborators were experimenting with to much of what Selena Gomez, Fifth Harmony and even Taylor Swift are currently dabbling in. 

"We definitely did just no-hold-barred, whatever we wanted to do. There was no thought process, no overthinking. It was fun and high energy and that energy that was on the record was the energy that was in the studio. I think we elevated the bar on how grimy and how grungy and how hard you can get in pop music," Hills tells us. "It was the perfect person to do it because it was the Queen Britney. What better pretty image to do it with, to make this edgy hard thing? And that's what we did. We just kicked down the walls on what pop music is and set a different tone and that's where the whole urban influence in pop music is I would say, definitely, because of that album.

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"I think Blackout introduced underground electropop to the mainstream," Miller adds. "It pushed singers to reach new heights and producers to get more creative; the vocal editing was a perfect pair with the eerie synths and heavy drums on nearly every track. Britney wanted to record an album that veered away from the narrative of her personal life, yet it reflected it anyhow. She proved her power as an executive producer."

Spears' A&R at the time, Teresa LaBarbera Whites, recalled that the album was the one that opened up the artist to a new and broader audience. "The thing about Blackout is that it's such an amazing record for so many different people and so many different types of music fans," she told  A&R Report in 2014. "We managed to reach not just Britney's loyal fan base, we also managed to garner some new fans...That's exciting."

And it wasn't just Spears' career that the album changed. "Believe me, I get hit up every day, every single day, about how that album has affected someone, or the fans, they always want us to do another one or whatever," Hills says. "I remember Teresa, the A&R at the time, she just was like, ‘I'm going to tell you, your life is about to change.' I was like, ‘Um, OK.' I just came off of 'SexyBack' and 'My Love' and those records, so I'm like, ‘Can it get any bigger than that?' And it did. It definitely did. I feel like regardless of everything I've done, the Britney Blackout album is the one people most relate me to."

As for Spears' legacy herself, Miller asserts, "Britney is the first star to reach such stratospheric levels of superstardom in the digital age, to the point where she nearly never drifted back. Despite that unprecedented and unchartered fame, Britney triumphed. If there's anything I've learned about the princess of pop through the years, it's to expect the unexpected."

"She's solidified as who she is, period. There's no Taylor Swift without Britney. A lot of these pop artists just would not be here without Britney Spears," Hills adds. "Regardless of what she's done and what she's doing now…She's forever Britney Spears."

Of course, no celebration of Blackout would be complete without word from the queen herself. We leave you with Spears' own recollection of and thoughts on the iconic album.

"Blackout was the first time I worked with Danja, and he gave me the opportunity and freedom to work with more urban sounds and influences. It really inspired me! I also got the chance to sing more and stretch my voice in ways I hadn't done before. The magic of Blackout was actually pretty simple. It just wasn't so thought out. I just did what I felt and it worked. Sometimes less is more I guess," she told The Fader earlier this month.

"I still perform "Freakshow" in my Vegas show — it's one of my favorite songs that was never released as a single. It's so much fun and it gives me the chance to get the audience involved. Oh yeah — it's sassy. And I love sassy!"

Spoken like the true princess of pop.