This was Sade's first Top Ten hit in the US, peaking at number five on the Billboard Hot 100 chart for two weeks in May 1985. The song spent 13 weeks in the Top 40, and also topped the Billboard Adult Contemporary chart for two weeks. Although "Your Love Is King" remains Sade's biggest hit in the UK to date, "Smooth Operator" is the band's breakthrough hit on the US charts, and their most successful single internationally.
Ray St. John, who co-wrote "Smooth Operator" with Sade Adu, was previously a member of Adu's former band Pride, although he was not a member of the band Sade. The pair co-wrote the song in 1982 while still members of Pride, yet did not get around to recording it because St. John left Pride shortly after Sade joined. St. John later went on to play guitar with the band Halo James, which scored a UK Top Ten hit with "Could Have Told You So" in February 1990.
"Smooth Operator" is about a fashionable man who lives a jet-set lifestyle. He is popular with women and breaks many hearts. The lyrics "Coast to Coast/LA to Chicago/Western Male/Across the North and South to Key Largo/Love for sale" imply that he is used by women to obtain his income. It is also clear that he does not hold affection for these women, as Adu sings near the end, "his heart is cold."
This song is noted for Sade's spoken recitation in the song's introduction. Some radio edits have omitted the spoken introduction, and proceeded with the opening sung line of the title of the album, "Diamond Life".