Mid-1981 was the first great period of prolificacy for Prince. In astonishingly little time, he completed work on his own fourth album, a full-length debut for protégés the Time, and several other assorted odds and ends, including a handful of songs for the Hookers (“Drive Me Wild,” “Make-Up,” “Wet Dream,” “Gym Class,” “I Need a Man,” “Jealous Girl,” “Mink Kitty Cat,” and “Pizza”), as well as other tracks with tantalizing titles like “Delivery Boy,” “Friction,” “Heart Attack,” “Hump You,” “Poppa Grooves,” “The Rain and You,” “Rearrange,” and “See U Dead.” One of those odds and ends would even end up on the album: the taut, New Wave-inflected funk of “Let’s Work.”
According to legend, “Let’s Work” began life as “Let’s Rock”: Prince’s version of a ’60s-style dance craze song, like “The Twist” or “The Loco-Motion.” The song, inspired by a dance Prince had seen in Minneapolis clubs called “the Rock,” had been kicking around as early as 1979; its title appears in one of Prince’s notebooks in what appears to be an early, handwritten tracklist for the Prince album, alongside “I Wanna Be Your Lover,” “Bambi,” “Why You Wanna Treat Me So Bad?”, “When We’re Dancing Close and Slow,” “With You,” “Still Waiting,” “It’s Gonna Be Lonely,” “Sexy Dancer,” and “Darling Marie.” When it didn’t make it onto the album, Prince allegedly tried to release it as a non-LP single; but Warner Bros. didn’t bite, a minor setback that, in retrospect, foreshadowed more serious conflicts with the label to come.
By the time Prince returned to the song in 1981, the Rock had long since gone the way of all dance crazes; hence, “Let’s Rock” became “Let’s Work.” With the dance conceit now jettisoned, Prince’s lyrics returned to more familiar–and carnal–territory. “I’ve had my eyes on you ever since you walked in the room,” he begins, echoing similar come-ons in “Do It All Night” and “In Love,” among others. By the second verse, he’s grown bolder: “I’d like to turn you on, I’d work you all night long / If I could get you in the raw, I’d make you climb the walls.” The rhyme scheme is, shall we say, a stretch; but especially in concert, Prince had just the sexual charisma to pull it off.
Musically, “Let’s Work” showed the lessons Prince had learned during the making of The Time. It’s easily the most conventionally funky of his solo songs to date, with a popping bassline–another lick “borrowed” from the departed André Cymone, according to his interview with podcaster Michael Dean–and relentless keyboard-horn stabs. Though it’s another of Prince’s one-man jams, recorded both at his Kiowa Trail home studio and at Hollywood Sound Recorders in Los Angeles, it has a live-band feel; one can hear in the studio recording the funk showpiece it would become on stage.
“Let’s Work” is also historically significant for introducing what would become a cornerstone of Prince’s 1980s work: the extended 12″ mix. Completed at Sunset Sound on December 8, 1981, the eight-minute “Dance Remix” featured entirely new musical elements: most notably a series of breakdowns in which Prince pants, then screams, “work it!” over squalls of guitar noise. Prince recorded the new section of the song with Morris Day on drums, enhancing the impression that it would have fit right in on The Time; according to a 2003 NPG Music Club post (via Prince Vault), at one point Prince and Morris switched places on the drum stool while the tape was running. Toward the end of the remix, there’s even an early example of sampling, with clips from “Private Joy,” “Annie Christian,” and “Controversy” dropped into the mix–the first of many examples of Prince sampling himself.
“Let’s Work” would become a highlight of the Controversy album and a decent-sized hit single, reaching Number 9 on Billboard’s Hot Soul Singles and topping the Dance/Disco chart. As for the Rock, I did a little digging and couldn’t find any visual documentation of the dance; if anybody from the late ’70s Twin Cities club scene wants to demonstrate it for posterity, you know where to find me.
(Note: I updated this post in April 2019 both to include some Hookers-era tracks that I left out the first time and to adjust my chronology for “Let’s Rock”: I had originally pegged it as having been written early in 1981, but its appearance in a 1979 notebook that was recently sold at auction obviously means it was much older.)