On February 2001, Spears got a promotional deal for $7-8 million dollars with Pepsi, and released another book co-written with her mother, entitled A Mother’s Gift. Her third studio album, Britney, was released in November 2001. While on tour, she felt inspired by hip hop artists such as Jay-Z and The Neptunes and wanted to create a record with a funkier sound. The album debuted at number one in the Billboard 200 and reached top five positions in Australia, the United Kingdom and mainland Europe and sold over 12 million copies worldwide. Stephen Thomas Erlewine of Allmusic called Britney “the record where she strives to deepen her persona, making it more adult while still recognizably Britney. [...] It does sound like the work of a star who has now found and refined her voice, resulting in her best record yet.” The album was honored with two Grammy nominations—Best Pop Vocal Album and Best Female Pop Vocal Performance for “Overprotected”— and was listed in 2008 as one of Entertainment Weekly’s “100 Best Albums from the Past 25 Years”. The album’s first single, “I’m a Slave 4 U”, became a top-ten hit worldwide. Spears’s performance of the single at the 2001 MTV Video Music Awards featured a caged tiger and a large albino python drapped over her shoulders. It was harshly received by animal rights organization PETA, who claimed the animals were mistreated and scrapped plans for an anti-fur billboard that was to feature Spears. To support the album, Spears embarked on the Dream Within a Dream Tour. The show was critically praised for its technical innovations, the pièce de résistance being a water screen that pumped two tons of water into the stage. The tour grossed $43.7 million, becoming the second highest grossing tour of 2002 by a female artist, behind Cher’s Farewell Tour. Her career success was highlighted by Forbes in 2002, as Spears was ranked the world’s most powerful celebrity. Spears also landed her first starring role in Crossroads, released in February 2002. Although the film was largely panned, most critics actually praised Spears’s acting. Crossroads, which had a $11 million budget, went on to gross over $57 million worldwide.
In June 2002, Spears opened her first restaurant, Nyla, in New York City, but terminated her relationship in November, citing mismanagement and “management’s failure to keep her fully apprised”. In July 2002, Spears announced she would take a six month break from her career; however, she went back into the studio in October to record her new album. Spears’s relationship with Justin Timberlake ended after three years. In December 2002, Timberlake released the song “Cry Me a River” as the second single from his solo debut album. The music video featured a Spears look-alike and fueled the rumors that she had been unfaithful to him. As a response, Spears wrote the ballad “Everytime” with her backing vocalist and friend Annet Artani. The same year, Limp Bizkit frontman Fred Durst confirmed that he was in a relationship with Spears, only to deny it later. In a 2009 interview, he explained that “I just guess at the time it was taboo for a guy like me to be associated with a gal like her.” Spears opened the 2003 MTV Video Music Awards with Christina Aguilera, performing “Like a Virgin”. Halfway through they were joined by Madonna, with whom they both kissed. The incident was highly publicized. Spears released her fourth studio album, In the Zone, in November 2003. She assumed more creative control by writing and co-producing most of the material. Vibe called it “A supremely confident dance record that also illustrates Spears’s development as a songwriter.” NPR listed the album as one of “The 50 Most Important Recording of the Decade”, adding that “the decade’s history of impeccably crafted pop is written on her body of work.” In the Zone sold over 609,000 copies in the United States and debuted at the top of the charts, making Spears the first female artist in the SoundScan era to have her first four studio albums to debut at number one. It also debuted at the top of the charts in France and the top ten in Belgium, Denmark, Sweden and the Netherlands. In the Zone sold over 10 million copies worldwide. The album yielded three hit singles: “Me Against the Music”, a collaboration with Madonna; “Toxic”—which won a Grammy for Best Dance Recording— and “Everytime”