Furtado came to fame in 2000 with the release of her debut album Whoa, Nelly!, which featured the Grammy Award-winning single "I'm Like a Bird" and "Turn off the Light". After giving birth to a daughter and releasing the less successful Folklore (2003), Furtado returned to prominence in 2006 with the release of Loose and its hit singles, "Promiscuous" and "Maneater".
Furtado is known for her musical eclecticism, continually experimenting with different instruments, sounds, genres, languages, and vocal styles. This diversity has been influenced by her wide-ranging musical taste and her interest in different cultures.
The first musicians Furtado interacted with were underground rappers and DJs. During a visit to Toronto after the summer of eleventh grade, she met Tallis Newkirk, member of hip hop group Plains of Fascination and contributed vocals to their 1996 album Join the Ranks on the track "Waitin' 4 the Streets". She spent the rest of that summer in Portugal, opening her mind to native rock acts. She then returned to British Columbia to finish high school and later moved to Toronto where she eventually formed the trip hop duo Nelstar in 1997 with Newkirk. The experience led Furtado back to her hip hop influences and allowed her to become more comfortable with writing her own melodies and rhymes. Although, "Like", one of the songs Nelstar recorded, received a VideoFACT grant to cover for the production of a music video, Furtado felt the trip-hop style of the duo was "too segregated" and believed it did not represent her personality or allow her to showcase her vocal ability. She left the group and decided to move back home.
Before moving, she performed at the 1997 Honey Jam, a female, mostly-black talent show at Toronto nightclub Lee's Palace. She performed to a Digital Audio Tape in jeans and a t-shirt. At the club, The Philosopher Kings singer Gerald Eaton (aka Jarvis Church) was impressed with her performance and approached her to write with him. Eaton and fellow Kings member Brian West, collectively known as Track and Field, helped Furtado produce a demo, but Furtado already had plans to backpack through Europe and return home to take creative writing courses at Camosun College. She stayed in touch with Eaton and West who insisted that she return to Toronto to record more material. She eventually returned for two weeks; the material recorded during those sessions led to Furtado's record deal with DreamWorks Records in 1999.