While work on the Time’s second album didn’t formally begin until January 1982, at least one track had an earlier genesis: according to Prince Vault, the original 2″ tape of “The Walk” stored in the Paisley Park Vault (and, now, at Iron Mountain in Los Angeles) was labeled with a date of July 1, 1981. This suggests that Prince recorded something by that title–either an early version or the actual basic track–in his own home studio, a few weeks before the release of the Time’s first album on July 29.
This makes a lot of sense, because “The Walk” is the What Time is It? track that most resembles the style of its predecessor. It’s long: nine and a half minutes, to be exact, roughly halfway between the lengths of “Get It Up” and “Cool.” And, like “Get It Up” and “The Stick,” it moves at a sauntering pace, driven by an unhurried “walking” bassline and singer Morris Day’s casual, half-spoken vocals. The titular “Walk”–a dance-craze homage in the tradition of “Let’s Rock”–references both the song’s moderate tempo and Prince’s early instructions to Morris while the pair were developing his stage presence: “Walk, put your hand in your pocket, and be cool,” as the frontman later summarized (Crandell 2015).
Where “The Walk” sets itself apart from its progenitors on The Time is the confidence of its delivery. Morris inhabits his role even more fully than he did on “Cool”–though perhaps it would be more accurate to say “roles,” as he begins each verse with a drill sergeant’s bark of “Attention!” before slipping into his customary slick ladies’-man patter. In the skits that take place during the song’s extended vamps–which is to say, about three-quarters of the track–the singer’s growing self-assurance and well-honed comic timing are on ample display. Not all of this material lands: the Time’s ringing endorsement of “baggies” for their “easy access” (“before you get a chance to holler, ‘Stop!’”) hasn’t aged well in the era of “#MeToo.” More often than not, however, the sheer cartoonishness of the “Morris Day” persona encourages chuckles almost in spite of itself. Particularly notable is the birdlike, squawking laugh with which Morris closes the track: the first recorded appearance, I’m reasonably certain, of a verbal tic he’d play to the hilt on later tracks like “The Bird” and “Jerk Out.”
With Morris more comfortable behind the microphone than he was on the debut, Prince recedes to the background: his vocals are still clearly audible alongside his protégé’s, but it isn’t always obvious whose are whose. At the bridge, somebody–probably Morris–slips into a comical “white guy” voice to announce, “The days of dancing in one place are gone”; another voice replies, in an even broader “pimp” caricature than the rest of the song, “And honey, you know you can’t dance with them tight jeans on.” In the music video (above), this line is placed rather unconvincingly in bassist Terry Lewis’ mouth; it sounds like it could be Morris, but it also sounds a lot like a similar voice that would show up on “If a Girl Answers (Don’t Hang Up)” by Vanity 6. Could it, perhaps, be the mysterious Jamie Starr? At least one cameo has been confirmed: the stereotypical Italian waiter who shows up about a minute from the end of the song was voiced by Prince, in a performance that did not bode well for any of his future film roles.
Like the majority of the first Time album, Prince and Morris were responsible for nearly all of the music on What Time is It?; this time, however, they were more assiduous in paying lip service to the rest of the band. Morris calls out Jellybean Johnson’s name to cue himself on the drums; underlining the illusion, portions of the drum part also sound like they’re being simulated by Prince’s Linn LM-1. The callouts to the “piano man” and the “little cute guitar player” are admittedly more generic–and, especially in the latter case, it couldn’t have been lost on Prince that the description applied just as readily to himself as to the Time’s Jesse Johnson. But when he does oblige with a solo, it sounds like he has Jesse’s fiery, Hendrix-inspired style in mind. These nods to the absent band members, likely overdubbed on January 15 at Sunset Sound, emulate the band’s live dynamic with near-uncanny accuracy.
Almost certainly another product of the January session was a breakdown a little over halfway through the track: adopting the same robotic voice he’d employed for “Controversy,” Prince–his vocals mixed louder than at any other point in the song–joins Morris to chant, “We don’t like policemen / We don’t like New Wave / We don’t like television.” These apparent nonsequiturs are, on one level, an extension of Prince’s stream-of-consciousness anti-“tourist” manifesto from “Sexuality”; but the “New Wave” jab also had a more personal meaning. By the time “The Walk” was completed, Prince would surely have learned that the new album by his erstwhile bassist, André Cymone, would be titled Livin’ in the New Wave; his sudden anti-New Wave stance (which would have been news to anyone who’d bought Controversy) would thus appear to be a delayed expression of displeasure over his former partner’s departure. Nor was it the only such reference on the Time’s album: “Onedayi’mgonnabesomebody,” recorded later in the spring and eventually released as the B-side of “The Walk,” employed the whole band to voice their distaste for the genre–not very convincingly, as What Time is It? bears as obvious a New Wave influence as any other product of the Minneapolis Sound.
Last but not least, “The Walk” ends with a skit in which Morris cajoles a self-conscious young lady into shedding her tight jeans for a less restrictive camisole (the better to do the Walk in, my dear). With the obvious caveat of its sexism, it’s the funniest exchange in the song, with some enduringly quotable lines: when asked if he “always keeps lingerie in his glove compartment,” for example, Morris shoots back, “None of my women wear gloves.” It’s also one of the first recorded appearances of Denise Matthews, who Prince met while in L.A. that January at the ninth annual American Music Awards. By the time the album was released in August, Matthews had been rechristened Vanity, and she occupied her own prominent, albeit short-lived place in the Prince/Starr ★ Company musical empire. That, however, is a story for another day.
(This post has been updated to correct the date when overdubs were completed at Sunset Sound, based on Duane Tudahl’s liner notes for 1999 Super Deluxe.)