In 1995, Chris Kirkpatrick met with Lou Pearlman to talk about forming a pop group. Pearlman said that he would finance the group if Kirkpatrick would find other young male singers to be with him in the band. This prompted Kirkpatrick to call Joey Fatone, a friend he had met while working at Universal Studios. Fatone and Kirkpatrick then approached Pearlman for more suggestions. Pearlman looked through some tapes they had, and one of Justin Timberlake from The Mickey Mouse Club caught their eye. Timberlake soon joined the group and recommended his friend JC Chasez, who also was a cast member on the Mickey Mouse Club. Soon, they decided to even out their sound by finding a bass singer. Initially, their fifth member was to be Jason Galasso. After several weeks of rehearsals, the group set up a showcase and began planning to officially sign with Pearlman's Trans Continental Label. However, at the last minute, Galasso dropped out as he was not fond of the group's musical direction, claiming that being a teen idol was never a goal of his. In need of a bass, the group auditioned several people without success. Timberlake soon called his vocal coach, who suggested a 16-year-old from Mississippi named Lance Bass. Bass flew to Orlando to audition and was immediately accepted into the group. After being signed to BMG Ariola Munich, another of Pearlman's labels, the group were sent to Sweden to begin working on their debut album with the help of producers such as Denniz Pop, Max Martin and Andreas Carlsson.
The album's official lead single, "I Want You Back", was released in Germany on October 7, 1996, and entered the top 10 in Germany on November 18, 1996. The group's second single, "Tearin' Up My Heart", was released in Germany on February 10, 1997, also peaking within the top 10. A third single, "Here We Go", was released in Germany on May 5, 1997, just three weeks prior to the release of the album, to similar success. Their self-titled debut album was then released by BMG Ariola Munich on May 26, 1997, in Germany, peaked at number one in the week of release. The group soon became an overnight success throughout much of Europe. The album also charted successfully in both Switzerland and Austria eventually selling 820,000 units in GSA (Germany, Switzerland, Austria) region and Eastern Europe. Two further singles, "For the Girl Who Has Everything" and "Together Again", were subsequently released on August 18 and November 3, 1997 respectively, achieving success in Germany and other European territories.
Following their success of their debut album in several European territories, the band captured the attention of Vincent DeGiorgio, an A&R rep for RCA Records. After watching the group perform a rendition of their single "Together Again" in Budapest in November 1997, he offered them a record deal with RCA, which the group immediately agreed to. In January 1998, their first German single, "I Want You Back", was released in both the United Kingdom and the United States, becoming their first single in both territories, achieving success on both the UK Singles Chart and the Billboard Hot 100. Around this time, RCA Records announced that they wished to release the group's debut album, which was previously only released in Germany, in both the U.K. and the U.S., however, wanted to make adjustments to suit both markets. This resulted in the tracks "Riddle", "Best of My Life", "More Than a Feeling", "Together Again" and "Forever Young" being cut altogether, and new mixes of "I Want You Back", "Tearin' Up My Heart" and "For the Girl Who Has Everything" being recorded. The new version of the album also included four new tracks: "I Just Wanna Be with You", "God Must Have Spent a Little More Time on You", "Everything I Own", "Thinking of You (I Drive Myself Crazy)". This version of the album was subsequently released in the United States on March 24, 1998.
On June 30, 1998, the group's second German single, "Tearin' Up My Heart", was released in both the U.K. and the U.S., once again achieving success on both charts. Further edits were made for the British version of the album, including remixes of "Thinking of You (I Drive Myself Crazy)", "God Must Have Spent a Little More Time on You" and "For the Girl Who Has Everything", plus an all-new track, "U Drive Me Crazy", written exclusively for the British market. This version of the album was released in the UK on July 5, 1998. At first, sales of the album were mediocre in both British and American territories, until the band's worldwide broadcast Disney Summer Concert in 1998. After the concert was aired, sales of the album began to skyrocket. It reached number two on the Billboard Hot 100 and shipped over 10 million copies in the United States alone, making it certified 10× Platinum and earning the group a RIAA diamond award. On February 9, 1999, a third single from the new version of the album, "God Must Have Spent a Little More Time on You", was released exclusively in the United States, peaking at #8 on the Billboard Hot 100. They then went on to become the #3 top-selling boy-band group of all time.